The Montana ACLU and Native American voting-rights advocates filed suit Thursday to overturn a new state law that restricts who can turn in voted ballots, saying it effectively prevents many Native Americans from voting.
“This misguided and harmful law is leading to the disenfranchisement of entire communities,” said Lillian Alvernaz of ACLU-Montana. “This law is an attack on the constitutional rights of indigenous people living on rural reservations.”
The law – passed by Montana voters in 2018 -- essentially stops the efforts of get-out-the-vote organizers on Indian reservations, who collect and turn in scores of absentee ballots from Native Americans who live in remote parts of the reservation, the ACLU said.
The law restricts who can turn in other people’s ballots and says collectors can turn in no more than six ballots. Get-out-the-vote organizers on the reservation sometimes collect up to 85 votes, on average, the suit said.
But Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, who sponsored the bill that led to the law’s passage, told MTN News Thursday that the law isn’t preventing anyone from voting.
Those with absentee ballots can put them in the mail , without any restrictions, he said.
“This lawsuit is a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing attempt by dark-money groups, who are attempting to defy the will of the people,” said Olszewski, who’s also running for governor.
The suit, filed in state District Court in Billings, said the Ballot Interference Protection Act violates the voting and due-process rights of those living on Montana Indian reservations.
It also violates the free speech and association rights of organizing groups that collect voted ballots from Native Americans on reservations, the lawsuit said.
Montana voters approved the law by referendum in 2018, by a 63 percent to 37 percent margin.
The 2017 Legislature placed the referendum on the ballot on mostly party-line votes, with all Democrats voting against it. It passed the Senate 30-19 and the House 51-49.
The new law says the only people who can collect absentee ballots from other people and turn them in to election offices are family members, household members, caregivers or an “acquaintance,” which is defined as someone “known by the voter.”
The person turning in the ballot also must fill out a form for each ballot, with the name of the voter and his or her relationship to the voter.
Olszewski said he sponsored the bill after hearing from a constituent who had felt intimidated by someone she didn’t know, coming to her house and asking to collect her absentee ballot.
The lawsuit said the law is difficult to comply with, because its definitions are unclear, and that its provisions are “incompatible with Native family structures and relationships.”
“(The law) ignores the everyday realities that face Native American communities,” said Jacqueline De Leon of the Native American Rights Fund. “It is not reasonable to expect voters to drive an hour to drop off their ballot, so collecting ballots in reservation communities just makes sense.”