Attention Native Voters in Montana: Republican efforts are underway to curtail your right to vote.
If the Republican members of the Montana Redistricting Commission are successful, the franchise for natives could be nullified for a decade. Instead of the nine majority-minority districts (6 Houses, 3 Senates) that have existed in Montana for two decades, some majority-minority districts would be eliminated and/or weakened entirely under the two proposed Republican redistricting maps.
Also, as recently reported, Republican-drawn redistricting maps would “produce supermajorities for the state’s dominant GOP.” With a gerrymandered supermajority, the GOP could unilaterally enact laws; move unilaterally to place changes to the Montana Constitution on the ballot; and further dilute the Indian vote, regardless of the number of majority-minority constituencies.
Across the country, we are seeing a historic rollback of voter protections for minorities, with civil rights leaders and historians warning that it marks a dangerous throwback to the “Jim Crow” laws of the last century. At its core, the pushback is based on the “big lie,” that President Joe Biden did not win the 2020 election, producing empowering lies: There was massive voter fraud in 2020. Courts in across the country have solidly and uniformly rejected these bogus claims of voter fraud, but that hasn’t stopped the onslaught of Republican voter suppression.
In Montana, the 2021 Republican Legislature joined this voter suppression movement and eliminated the ability of Montana voters to register and vote on Election Day and gutted the ability of Natives and organizations like Western Native Voice to help collect ballots from Indigenous communities and households that may lack mailboxes, vehicles or even housing. This issue is currently the subject of litigation in Yellowstone County in an action brought by four Montana tribal governments and Western Native Voice.
For generations, Native Americans have fought an uphill battle to have a fair voice in Montana government. Until 1932, there were no Indians in the Montana Legislative Assembly. It was then that Dolly, 31, Black-smith Akers was elected from Wolf Point, who was also the only woman in the 1933 Legislative Assembly. As recently as the 1970s, following earlier redistricting plans that divided reservation populations and diluted voting power natives, there were only a few Indians in the Montana legislature and none elected to participate in the drafting of the 1972 Constitution.
The tribes and natives of Montana were shocked and disappointed when the president of the Montana Redistricting Commission sided with two Republican members of the Commission last November to draw the new map of Congress in Montana. Montana tribes, including the Blackfeet and CSKT, the two most affected tribes, Western Native Voice, and the overwhelming public record favored drawing a western congressional district that offered fewer benefits to the GOP (although the district has always leaned towards the GOP).
Now the Redistricting Commission is focused on its final task: drawing the boundaries of 100 house districts and pairing the house districts to create 50 senate districts. Montana’s nine majority-minority districts that have existed for more than two decades are firmly entrenched in the voting protections afforded by both the federal voting rights law and the Montana Constitution.
For nearly 40 years, Native Americans have successfully fought and advocated for electoral districts in Montana that do not dilute their vote. In 1983, as a young attorney, I drafted the federal complaint in Windy Boy v. Bighorn County, (647 F. Supp. 1002 (D. Mont 1986)), which became a leading case in the country regarding the application of federal voting rights in indian country. I feel the same winds of Indian voter suppression blowing through Montana today that were blowing then.
In difficult times like this, we have called on the strength of our ancestors. Our ancestors fought and died for this nation long before Indians were considered American citizens, let alone guaranteed the right to vote. Second, our ancestors fought for American democracy, so they could exercise those rights. Now, with equal vigor, we must fight to prevent our right to vote from being taken away.
Please take the time to attend one of the upcoming public comment periods on Montana’s draft legislative redistricting plan: Western Regional Zoom (August 30); Bozeman (September 1); Great Falls (September 7); Central Regional Zoom (September 9); Crow Agency (September 15); Billings (September 16); Eastern Regional Zoom (September 19).
More details: https://leg.mt.gov/districting and https://westernnativevoice.org
Tap Smith is the Chairman of the Board of Western Native Voice.