The Blaine County government is again facing a federal lawsuit over Native American voting rights, this time as one of three counties being sued in the complaint.
Members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, the Crow Tribe and Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Tribes have filed the suit against Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch along with the clerk and recorders and county commissioners of Blaine, Big Horn and Rosebud counties, saying the county governments’ decisions against establishing satellite county clerk and recorder offices on the Fort Belknap, Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations to provide voting access is a violation of the state and federal constitutions.
The lawsuit comes 11 years after a federal judge ordered Blaine County to revise its county commissioner election rules to allow only voters from the commission district in question to vote, saying the previous countywide commissioner elections had discriminated against Indian candidates and voters.
Blaine County Commissioner Dolores Plumage this morning referred questions on the new lawsuit to the Blaine County attorney, saying the commission has not received a copy of the complaint.
Blaine County Attorney Don Ranstrom also declined to comment at this point, saying he also has not yet received a copy of the complaint.
“I cannot give you any comment …, ” he said this morning. “I think it’s just best that we wait and see what this thing says. ”
The complaint, filed Wednesday in federal court in Billings with Presiding District Judge Richard Cebull, asks the court to find that the defendants’ failure to provide satellite offices on the reservations violates the Voting Rights Act, the Indian Citizenship Act, the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Montana Constitution.
It also requests the court order the defendants to immediately establish satellite offices in Fort Belknap, Lame Deer and Crow Agency to allow voters to register and vote in-person and absentee at those offices in the Nov. 6 election.
As well as requesting the court award the plaintiffs attorney fees and costs, the complaint asks the court to “Grant the Plaintiffs any further relief which may in the discretion of the Court be necessary and proper to ensure that the voting rights of the Indians within Montana are properly respected in accordance with the Orders of this Court. ”
The complaint says that although absentee voting, commonly using the mail, has substantially increased in Montana in the past 12 years, Blaine, Big Horn and Rosebud counties have seen a much smaller increase and have a much lower percentage of voters using absentee voting,
In Blaine County, the complaint says, the rate of absentee voting has increased from 10.9 percent in the 2000 general election to 32.42 percent in last spring’s primary election, compared to the 15.68 percent in the 2000 general election growing to 61.38 percent in the 2012 primary statewide.
The issue started in May, when the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council requested a satellite Glacier County election office be established in Browning. After the secretary of state originally denied the request, the Montana attorney general ruled that clerk and recorders’ offices could establish satellite offices outside of the county seat, the complaint says.
In September, the complaint says, the Blaine County Commission voted against establishing a satellite office in Fort Belknap due to security, staffing and cost. After Four Directions, a nonprofit group which is “dedicated to empowering American Indian citizens in the electoral process, ” offered to donate funds, the county officials again did not approve the satellite office, citing time constraints, the federal complaint says.
“Defendants’ failure to establish satellite offices has a significant disparate impact on Indians’ voting power, denies the Plaintiffs’ voting rights and is an apparent effort to dilute Indian voting strength, ” the complaint says. “Plaintiffs allege that this inaction, if allowed, would reinforce a ‘history of official racial discrimination in voting. ’”