Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, introduces House Bill 613 in the House State Administration Committee Feb. 26, 2021. Credit: Courtesy MPAN

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As lawmakers in Montana consider several measures to restrict voting access, some lawmakers and tribal leaders are pushing a bill to negate measures that might reduce the number of Indigenous people casting ballots. 

The House State Administration Committee Friday morning heard testimony on House Bill 613, which supporters call a Native American Voting Rights Act. The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, would eliminate some barriers Indigenous voters face, as well as insulate them from the consequences of voting restrictions being considered by the Legislature. 

“It’s an important bill, basically because, if you have been tracking what has been going on in the Legislature this session, there are a number of voter suppression bills that have rolled out,” she said during a press conference detailing the measure this week. 

Lawmakers have been considering several Republican proposals that would restrict voting access after a November election that saw record turnout in Montana. While no evidence of widespread fraud in November’s election exists in Montana or the U.S., supporters have said the proposals, like closing voter registration earlier than in past years, are needed to ensure election integrity. Opponents said those measures would disenfranchise the elderly, college students, disabled people and Native American voters. 

Voter turnout among Native Americans in Montana set a record in 2020, with 66.4% turnout — a 5% increase over 2016 — in reservation precincts. Some of the Republican proposals, like strict limits on ballot collection efforts, would have an especially direct impact on those voters, supporters of HB 613 said.

Stewart Peregoy and other supporters said HB 613 would help maintain momentum in increasing voting rates among Montana’s Indigenous people, who didn’t gain citizenship until 1924 and didn’t gain the right to vote in every state until 1962.

“We want to keep up that progress,” said Keaton Sunchild, political director of Western Native Voice, in a Thursday press conference. “This bill would do nothing but push us forward and make Montana one of the leaders in the nation when it comes to Native voting rights.”

“This bill would do nothing but push us forward and make Montana one of the leaders in the nation when it comes to Native voting rights.”

Keaton Sunchild, political director of Western Native Voice

Although turnout rates have increased in recent years thanks to voter outreach efforts by groups like Western Native Voice, obstacles still exist for Indigenous voters in Montana. For example, long drives to polling places, lack of a physical mailing address required for voter registration, and lack of reliable transportation can make it difficult for many Indigenous Montanans to vote. 

HB 613 aims to help address some of those barriers. If passed, it would allow tribal citizens to vote using a nontraditional address on the reservation, like a tribal government building, as long as it’s clear which voting precinct they live in. The bill would also allow tribal members to use expired tribal IDs or IDs without expiration dates to vote, and require improved voter education and ballot drop boxes on reservations. 

Stewart Peregoy also said problems during the last election, including a limited number of satellite voting offices and limited hours of operation, prompted the proposal.

Even if the measure fails, ballot access for Native Americans and others may not be significantly rolled back. Sam Forstage of the Montana American Civil Liberties Union said many of the Republican-backed proposals are similar to other efforts that have already been successfully challenged in court, and likely would be again. One of those, HB 406, he said, is a “near replica” of the Ballot Interference Protection Act, which a court struck down in September after a challenge from the ACLU and Native American advocacy organizations. That measure passed a second vote in the Montana House on Friday afternoon. 

“I think legislators are almost becoming inured to the notion that these are unconstitutional,” Forstag said in the Thursday press conference. “The state needs to show a compelling interest as to why they’re doing that, but the only interest seems to be driving down voter turnout.”

About two dozen bill supporters testified Friday, with three opposing the measure, including Montana Secretary of State Elections Director Dana Corson. He said the legislation is unfair to non-Indian voters because many other Montanans face the same obstacles, like long drive times to polling places or unreliable vehicles. 

“By providing special and unique access for tribal members, while not including others, [the bill] creates a non-uniformity for people in Montana,” he said. “This committee should examine the bill carefully to make sure that all voters have access under the bill.”

Given the approaching Wednesday bill transmittal deadline and the number of bills the committee had to work through on Friday, testimony was limited to one minute per person. Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, said she wished there was more time allotted to discussing the bill, because as she has learned more “about life on the reservation and the struggles that they have to get to vote,” a proposal like HB 613 could have a positive effect on Indigeous voter turnout. She added that that it should be a “top priority.”

“We’ve got to work with them. Their vote matters, their voice matters,” she said. “This bill, it’s a great step. I wish it hadn’t come so late in the session.”

The committee amended the bill on Friday to include a fiscal impact statement, making it an appropriations bill, and allowing lawmakers to continue considering it after the policy bill transmittal deadline next week.

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.