In the final hours of the election, advocates working to get out the Native American vote in Montana are pulling out all the stops to connect with difficult to reach voters.
Yellowstone Public Radio's Kaitlyn Nicholas reports from Hardin, where absentee ballot returns trail the rest of the state.
At 2 p.m. in Big Horn County, the wait to vote is nearly 40 minutes. That line only gets longer as the days goes on. Voters, all wearing masks, stand socially distanced along the sidewalk outside the courthouse. People tell me a range of reasons brought them out to vote today.
In a parking lot across the street from the county courthouse, Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote, nonprofit groups that work to empower Indigenous citizens, have set up a booth and transportation area. Staff members chat on phones and social media, answering last minute questions about voter registration and ballot drop offs.
They check in with community members and pair up in teams to pick up ballots from all over the county. Lauri Kindness is a regional organizer for Western Native Voice.
“We're just here to help encourage people to get in and vote. If they have questions we're making sure that we're answering those the best we can. If not, we're guiding them in. Some people are a little nervous and intimidated to go inside. So, I've actually accompanied a couple of people in there too,” Kindness said.
Kindness says many would be voters are reaching out because they lost their ballots, or have questions about what to do if they don’t have an ID, or why their ballot might have been rejected due to a missing signature. Kindness says many ballots are never delivered, due to a lack of residential mail delivery on many reservations.
Since not all last minute voters have access to transportation to get to Hardin, the only place in Big Horn County for in person voting this election day, many people will reach out to Western Native Voice for help.
“We have a process that we're able to designate somebody, so that's an absentee ballot designation form, and then we take it to them, they fill it out. They designate me or whoever they want to designate. We'll go in, they'll print out a new ballot for them, seal it. We'll go and take it back to the person. They'll vote. They seal it, sign it and then we drop it back off for them,” Kindness said.
Kindness says on November first her team was given a list of over 2,000 people in her region that hadn’t returned their ballot. Her team called everyone on that list and offered to pick up ballots or give voters rides to Hardin. The team collected 53 ballots from Wyola, Pryor and Crow Agency yesterday, and then another 39 by this afternoon.
Kindness says it’s important to her team no one is left out on election day, especially overlooked populations.
“That's like the population that, you know, we are wanting to reach. There's no segregation or separation, no prejudice … but everybody needs to come in and vote,” Kindness said.
One team member, Jennifer Tartsah, is biking around Hardin and speaking to people currently living on the streets. If any homeless citizens want to vote, she says she brings them registration forms, delivers those to the courthouse, and then makes another round trip ferrying their sealed ballots.
I catch Tartsah as she’s delivering several ballots, along with masks and sanitizer from Western Native Voice, to some newly registered voters at a local park in Hardin. She says this is all a little new for her as well.
“Every vote counts. Now I know. I never was political before, I never was. I used to say, ‘Whatever's going to happen, is going to happen.’ But I know one thing that we can take a stand now. You know? And so it's very important that we do,” Tartsah said.