With one day left before Election Day, Native American rights advocates are making a final push to get out the vote as COVID-19 cases rise and the temperature drops.
At a recent voter registration drive-through event on the Crow Reservation, workers wearing masks and gloves help drivers fill out registration forms. Western Native Voice, a nonprofit working for Native American empowerment, held many events like this across Montana throughout the summer and fall.
"Pretty much every day is an election day from here forward because we're a vote by mail election," says Marci McLean, executive director of Western Native Voice
About 100 of McLean's staff are spread across Montana calling, texting and using social media to encourage tribal members to vote.
Reservation residents face many barriers to the ballot box, like needing to travel great distances to polls, often sharing difficult-to-access postal boxes, and high rates of poverty that can make any kind of travel or time off work a challenge. This year it’s even harder because of COVID-19. Recent court rulings and a patchwork of ballot drop boxes, satellite voting offices, ballot collection and voter registration events are trying to bridge the gap, even hours before the election deadline.
McLean says the past months have been exhausting as her team pushes to get out the vote.
"We're going off of the list of voters who have not returned their ballots. If we come across voters who have not registered and they would like to register, then we are giving them advice and instructions on the ways that you can still register and vote, which is in person at the election office or a satellite office if we are so privileged to have a satellite election office," McLean says.
Many counties opened satellite voting offices on reservations after the Wandering Medicine court case was settled in 2014. The court found Native Americans were travelling two to three times farther to vote than white residents of the same county. The solution was to open satellite election offices closer to Indigenous voters so voting opportunity was more equal.
This September, the Native American Rights Fund, or NARF, a nonprofit legal group that protects Indigenous rights, found several Montana counties weren’t planning to open satellite offices, after citing COVID-19 concerns. Roosevelt, Big Horn and Rosebud counties agreed to offer limited hours on the Fort Peck and Northern Cheyenne reservations. But Pondera County, which serves Blackfeet reservation residents, didn’t respond to NARF’s negotiation attempts.
"What happened in Pondera is they had an onsite office in Conrad but that's 60 miles away from the reservation. Blackfeet wanted a satellite office in Heart Butte," says Samantha Kelty, a NARF attorney based in Washington D.C.
Kelty says many Blackfeet tribal members do not have residential mail delivery, so they would have to make several trips to and from the post office in order to register and vote, unlike other county residents.
"COVID was just not a sufficient excuse because there was an office in Conrad," Kelty says.
When NARF threatened to sue Pondera, the county responded by opening an office on the Blackfeet Reservation in Heart Butte.
On election day, there will be satellite offices open on the Blackfeet and Rocky Boy’s reservations. Counties have also set up ballot drop boxes on the Rocky Boy’s, Blackfeet, Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
County election administrators offered satellite office hours only in advance of the election on the Fort Belknap, and Fort Peck Reservations. Sanders and Lake County reported the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes did not request election services until last month, when election officials claim it was too late to meet the request.
Elsewhere, those living on reservations without nearby election services, such as those on the Flathead reservation, may rely on ballot collection, which was made much more possible after a recent court decision.
Last month, a Montana district court overturned the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, or BIPA, which restricted ballot collectors from delivering more than six ballots. The court found the act unconstitutional and burdensome for Indigenous voters.
"Overturning BIPA has been a huge, huge, factor in our work, with the election being all vote by mail and Stay At Home orders, and the virus and everything," McLean says.
Western Native Voice, along with several tribes and advocacy groups, sued Secretary of State Corey Stapleton saying BIPA threatened the voting rights of Indigenous citizens.
After hearing testimony that many Native Americans share post office boxes located far from home, have fewer working vehicles and that high poverty rates on reservations can force voters to choose between paying for the gas to vote and paying for groceries, the court struck down BIPA.
McLean says without the court ruling, Western Native Voice would have needed to hire 300 more staff members to meet ballot collection needs, which would have been financially impossible. Now her team is busy delivering ballots in the days leading up to the election.
"It’s so critical in the progress we've made with people turning in their ballots," McLean says.
McLean says voters should report any sort of voter intimidation or suppression activity they observe or experience while turning in their ballot. To report questionable activity, citizens should call the Montana Secretary of State's voter hotline: 888-884-VOTE (8683).
Many advocates, like attorney Kelty, say Indigenous voter turnout could tip the scale of Montana’s tight political races.
"The Native American vote could flip your Senate by a narrow margin," Kelty says. "I think people all over the country are watching that."
Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America tribal affairs reporter.