Press "Enter" to skip to content

Indian Voters Win Step Toward Equal Ballot Access in Montana

Indian voters and their advocates have won a favorable settlement of an important voting rights lawsuit in Montana.

The Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch Indian voting rights lawsuit in Montana has many parallels to the Brooks v. Gant case in South Dakota. The Wandering Medicine lawsuit, like Brooks v. Gant, sought satellite voting stations to give Indian voters on remote reservations equal access to early voting. Wandering Medicine, like Brooks v. Gant, pitted Sioux Falls lawyer Steven Sandven and Indian voting advocacy group Four Directions against Rapid City lawyer and SDGOP secretary Sara Frankenstein. And in Wandering Medicine, as in Brooks v. Gant, the state and counties have surrendered and given the Indian plaintiffs most of what they asked for rather than face a precedent-setting thumping in federal court.

Under the settlement (attached here with a press release from Four Directions), Rosebud, Blaine, and Big Horn counties will establish satellite voting centers on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne, and Fort Belknap reservations respectively during the month before the general election. Again paralleling Brooks v. Gant, both sides are claiming victory. And again, Sara Frankenstein's attempt to portray a loss as a win is silly. The Wandering Medicine plaintiffs got the state and counties to remedy, if imperfectly, unequal voting access. They got the defendants to acknowledge fault (the settlement bears the standard language that no one acknowledges fault, but come on!) by agreeing to pay the plaintiffs $100,000 for their lawyer bills. Evidently Frankenstein learned her lesson in Brooks v. Gant and didn't try to force the Indian plaintiffs to pay for her defense of the state's discrimination.

However, Four Directions can't claim total victory. Those satellite voting centers will only be open on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and county election officials will move operations lock, stock, and ballot box to the reservations no those days, shuttering their courthouse offices. Montana state law requires that early/absentee ballots bear sequential numbers, and county and state officials say they can't figure out how to make the system number ballots at multiple sites within counties. Therefore, the plaintiffs have settled for an inelegant and still unequal fix that reduces the ability of white voters to vote at the courthouse but still gives them more opportunity to vote than Indian voters have.

In her press release on the settlement, attorney Frankenstein says the plaintiffs were asking for "technical impossibilities" in issuing properly numbered ballots from multiple sites in compliance with Montana law. I'm sure Frankenstein is just doing her job and doesn't really lack the technical and moral vision to see that technicalities should not stand in the way of justice.

Four Directions understands that this settlement is only a step toward full voting equality:

Four Directions will continue to work with Montana Tribes to establish voting equality and we call on Montana Secretary of State McCulloch to find a solution to the technology glitch that has forced Counties to only be able to have one voting office open on any given day. We believe a much better solution is for both the county courthouse and the Reservation satellite office to be open 5 days per week. In order to do so, she should request the Montana Votes vendor (Hewlett Packard) help solve this issue [Four Directions, press release, 2014.06.12].

Frankenstein says multi-site early voting is impossible; Four Directions says it's a matter of calling tech support. Who do you think sounds more reasonable? We should be able to guess how the Constitution and Martin Luther King would answer:

As a matter of recognized constitutional law, “technicalities” don’t override equal rights, says civil rights attorney Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project and author of American Indians and the Fight for Equal Voting Rights. “Administrative inconvenience cannot justify practices that burden the fundamental right to vote,” he says.

What would Martin Luther King do? “About Native voting? He sure as hell wouldn’t dither about technicalities,” says Four Directions consultant Healy, a former head of the South Dakota Democratic Party. “Read Dr. King’s ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail’ on the subject of waiting for rights.” In the 1963 letter, King decries the man “who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” [Stephanie Woodard, "The Missing Native Vote," In These Times, 2014.06.10].

Frankenstein and her clients must find all that practical sensibility and justice talk from Four Directions really annoying. They managed to work into the settlement this prohibitive clause:

In working with the Tribes to set up the altemative election administration office, Four Directions, Inc. will not be involved, and will not serve as a designee of the Tribes or otherwise contact the counties [Wandering Medicine vs. McCulloch, Private Settlement Agreement and Release, 2014.06.10].

Four Directions can live with that restriction, because they aren't fighting for themselves. They are fighting for Indian voting rights across the Great Plains. And they are winning.


  1. Rorschach 2014.06.13

    Montana has a Democratic governor, and has for years. It has baffled me that the state of Montana would fight voting rights for Native Americans. There must be some dynamics there that I am missing.

  2. lesliengland 2014.06.13

    noticed this, an actual "factoid" at wiki wondering about your question:
    Montana's Constitution specifically reads that "the state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity."[203]

    the state legislature is republican dominated.

  3. My Info 2014.06.13

    I am an American Indian and 3rd Generation Democrat the party that is supposed to be good for Indians. This case was fought unnessarily with County & State Officials who are Democrats. They could have simply opened the offices instead of wasting time and money. What's going on?

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.06.13

    There is a big problem here for Democrats. The Democratic Secretary of State acted rather like our Jason Gant in this case. The Montana Democrats declined to speak up on behalf of Indian voters in this lawsuit. I can't think of any seemly reason not to support the plaintiffs in this case. I'm not sure Indian voters will get any fairer shake from the GOP, but Montana Dems' inability to get on the right side of Wandering Medicine won't help them inspire enthusiasm among this important voting bloc.

  5. Nick Nemec 2014.06.13

    I've visited with Bret Healy on this issue many times and even discussed it with my counterparts in the Montana Democratic Party. The response of some Montana Democrats is inexplicable. The Montana GOP is much worse.

  6. Douglas Wiken 2014.06.13

    This has little to do with voter rights, but only with voter special convenience. Do we really want red, white, yellow, brown voters so uncaring, so ignorant, or so completely incompetent that they can't send a letter to a county auditor and request a mail-in ballot prior to election day?

  7. bret healy 2014.06.13

    doug, you'd fit right in on the Blaine County and Rosebud County Commissions

  8. Douglas Wiken 2014.06.13

    Healy, I am all in favor of all citizens having the right to vote and I want as many Native American Democrats to vote as possible, but they are not voting and it is not because it is so difficult for them to vote. More special privileges is a fun game for some Native Americans who enjoy suckering naive liberals.

    Democrats who want Native Americans to vote should develop a portable computer and printing system to slap together ballot requests for Native Americans distant from convenient voting locations. Then follow up to determine if they got the ballot.

  9. Roger Cornelius 2014.06.13

    Doug Wiken, do you have any concept at all of the depths of your bigotry and racism?

  10. Douglas Wiken 2014.06.13

    Roger, do you have any concept of the full depth of irrelevance of your mythology and special pleading?

  11. JeniW 2014.06.13

    Doug, do you know if there is internet services on the reservations, and if it is affordable for most to access?

    You assuming that all North American Indians want to, and do vote for Democrats. What about those who want to vote Republican? Should the Republicans also develop a portable computer and printer system? (I am going to assume you will say "yes.")

  12. Roger Cornelius 2014.06.13

    What has mythology got to do with voting? It seems that you are the one being irrelevant?

    White, convenient, special privileges apply when someone can't see or a explain problem because it has never happened to them, therefore, it is not a problem. Anyone seeking equality is wrong to pursue the rights others assume.

    I am a Native American Democrat as are my large extended family. We become involved in politics, we campaign, we vote and encourage others to do so.

    Your broad and sweeping generalization about Native Americans is truest definition of racism, bigotry, and prejudice. I don't talk about whites in such general terms.

    When I debate with you, I call you a racist and bigot, not the entire race of whites, but since you have white privilege on your side, you have the right to label Native Americans with your choice words.

  13. bret healy 2014.06.13


    read the voting rights act - cannot restrict the right to vote on account of race

    that is the reason why defendants folded in both of these cases

  14. Douglas Wiken 2014.06.13

    JenW, I am not assuming all Native Americans vote Democratic, but I would like to see them turnout to vote for Democratic candidates...especially Native American candidates.

    There is internet availability all over the reservations even if the tribes have prevented GoldenWest access to their land for laying the fiber-optic cables. We all pay a tax on cellphones, landlines, etc to subsidize phone use in poverty areas and for the elderly with misfortune.

    If the Republicans want to make it easy for Native Americans to vote, I am all for it. Some GOP candidates have made very significant attempts to get pre-registration and early voting of Native Americans and everybody else for that matter out here in the boondocks.

    The local Democratic Party and I have helped Native Americans who have demonstrated a failure by Auditors or other officials to make it difficult or impossible for them to vote. But too often, we do not get accurate reports from either the officials or the Native Americans. Truth is often the first victim of election wars.

  15. JeniW 2014.06.13

    Thank you, Doug for sharing your perspective.

    To me, the biggest problem/issue/concern or whatever it is, is that elected officials and/or candidates only seem to be concern about the North American Indian population is during the election years. The only time that they seem step foot on the reservations, or higher Indian population areas, is during the election year. But, maybe I am wrong about that?

    It reminds me of elected officials and/or candidates visiting a nursing home then come out thinking that they know everything is wonderful because the residents smile, nod their head, and do not dare say a negative word.

    If the elected officials/candidates would live for a week on a reservation, or in a nursing home, they would have a better understanding of the realities of the day to day living in those settings.

    I cannot ever claim to know much about the issues that the North American Indians have to deal with, but I sure know what it is like to reside in a nursing home for several weeks.

  16. Douglas Wiken 2014.06.13

    "To me, the biggest problem/issue/concern or whatever it is, is that elected officials and/or candidates only seem to be concern about the North American Indian population is during the election years. The only time that they seem step foot on the reservations, or higher Indian population areas, is during the election year. But, maybe I am wrong about that?"

    You are not wrong about that ...or at least not totally wrong. There is hypocrisy on all sides of these issues.

  17. Roger Cornelius 2014.06.13

    The biggest problem that I see, is that the 15th Amendment is basically a damn joke. From the day the Constitution was signed until today, it continues to be invoked to limit a sex, class or group from voting.
    In the early days, women won't allowed to vote, Blacks weren't allowed to vote, Native Americans couldn't vote until 1924, and the young men and women serving this country in the military couldn't vote until the late 60's.
    So much for the equality bullshit preached in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
    Today we have state after state making attempts to limit voter turn out by gerrymandering, arbitrarily changing voter registration laws and not allowing for early voting centers for the most isolated members of society.
    When any obstructions occur when we can't register and vote, that faux Constitution is being violated.
    Equality doesn't exist in America, its history has proven it over and over.

  18. mike from iowa 2014.06.14

    Nick or Roger C- I received this from a friend in Alaska who is involved with Native American rights and wondered if you had seen this--

  19. Douglas Wiken 2014.06.14

    If people can make money hauling PortaPotties around, maybe PortaVoteCenters could help on the reservations and also make some money for an inventor who can get a license to place them or travel around with them.

  20. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.06.15

    I saw a Montana license plate today, a rare sight in MN. It said "Treasure State", or something like that. WTH?! What happened to" Big Sky Country"? I'm appalled!

Comments are closed.