A heavily amended bill to expand Native American voting access in Montana advanced from a House committee Friday, although at least one tribe involved in the legislation expressed disappointment with the changes.
House Bill 613 was brought by Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, as an attempt to resolve some of the barriers to voting access on the state’s Indian reservations. After it was introduced late in the session, members of the House State Administration Committee held morning work sessions over the past week, aiming for a middle ground between budget-conscious counties and tribes demanding improved access to the polls on reservations.
Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, worked closely with other committee members on the legislation. He acknowledged Friday the bill was substantially different than what had been initially proposed by Native groups and tribes.
"This was a work in progress and like I've told people, it's kept me up a lot of nights," Running Wolf told the committee. But despite his lingering concerns, he called it "a big start.”
The committee passed the measure unanimously — one of the only Democrat-sponsored voting bills to find bipartisan momentum during a session dominated by Republican initiatives. The GOP holds sizable majorities in both chambers, as well as the governor’s office.
But changes to the bill cost the support of at least one of the state’s tribes. Andy Werk, Jr., president of the Fort Belknap Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, joined Thursday’s work session over Zoom to voice his frustration with the amendments.
“Fort Belknap faces resistance every year from county election officials that do not want to provide services on the reservation,” Werk told the committee members gathered for the work session. “… As edited, this law does not actually provide any relief to our community.”
Native Americans living on rural reservations often face prohibitively long distances to county polling places, such as the more than 50 miles that a Blackfeet reservation resident in Heart Butte would have to travel one-way to the Pondera County election office in Conrad. During his comments Thursday, Werk said some Fort Belknap residents must undertake 90-mile round trips to register to vote or cast ballots.
And mail ballots aren’t always an easy option, either, with many reservations lacking residential mail delivery services. Obstacles to voting in 2012 fueled a lawsuit filed by several tribes against the state and some counties, which resulted in a settlement that governs their current voting access.
The original bill would have required that each county with reservation lands within its boundaries provide two satellite election offices on the reservation, along with a ballot deposit location in each reservation town more than 10 miles away from those satellite offices. The amendment, also passed on Friday, removed the ballot deposit sites while cutting alternative or satellite offices to one per reservation.
Those changes reflected concerns that election administrators had voiced with the costs of implementing the bill in its original form. The state is not appropriating any money to the counties to carry out the new law, essentially making it an unfunded mandate.
Dulcie Bear Don’t Walk, the elections administrator for Big Horn County, said she is the only employee of the county’s elections office, although she normally has one part-time staffer. Under a current the settlement agreement, she is required during the month leading up to the election to operate alternate elections offices on both the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations, both of which include land in Big Horn County.
As the only employee in a county election office running on a less than $200,000 annual budget, she said the existing requirements force her to close the main county elections office in Hardin for all but two days each week before the election. Two days each week she operates an office in Crow Agency, and once a week she relocates to Busby, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
As the bill was originally written, she would have had to operate a total of four satellite offices each day of the week, from the time when mail ballots go out through Election Day.
“The cost of funding this would be extreme for our county,” Bear Don’t Walk said Tuesday. “I don’t disagree with the idea of the bill. I am just finding difficulty with implementing it.”
The amended bill leaves most of the specifics on election office locations, as well as days and hours of operation, up to the counties and tribes to hammer out. And because the state has no authority to require the tribes to pay for services, the bill simply notes that counties and tribes may also come up with a cost-sharing agreement to pay for expanded services on the reservation.
Stewart Peregoy’s bill also no longer includes a provision to allow voters to register and vote with “nontraditional addresses,” intended to cover tribal members who may have a narrative description of where they live. But it was removed, as existing law already allows voters to register without a specific address as long as their precinct can be identified.
"While we would have hoped to see the original bill passed, we think this is a great first step toward getting equity in the electoral process in Indian Country in Montana," Keaton Sunchild, the political director for Western Native Voice, said after the bill cleared the committee.
If passed, implementation of the bill’s requirements would be overseen by the Legislature’s State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee.