Text: Native Voting Rights Protected in Montana Supreme Court

The Montana Supreme Court on March 27, 2024, ruled in favor of a collection of Native American organizations and tribes, holding that two state laws that hinder Native American participation in the state’s electoral process violate the fundamental right to vote under the Montana Constitution.  The case, Western Native Voice et al. v. Jacobsen et al., was consolidated with a challenge brought by the Montana Democratic Party and various youth voting organizations.

One measure, HB 176, would have ended Election Day registration; the other, HB 530, aimed to prohibit paid third-party ballot assistance. Native American voters living on reservations disproportionately rely upon both Election Day registration and ballot assistance to cast votes in Montana. That is why in 2020, two Montana courts struck down a substantially similar measure to HB 530, finding the restriction on ballot collection disproportionately harmful to Native American voters in rural tribal communities. Today, the Montana Supreme Court found that both HB 176 and HB 530 disproportionately and unconstitutionally burdened the voting rights of Native Americans, in part because it is “much more difficult on average for people living on reservations to either get to a polling place on or before election day, or to mail an absentee ballot prior to election day.”

The decision affirms a September 2022 decision from the Thirteenth Judicial District Court, which permanently enjoined both HB 176 and HB 530 as unconstitutional. Plaintiffs Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote, the Blackfeet Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe filed suit, Western Native Voice v. Jacobsen, against HB 176 and HB 530 in May 2021. They are represented by the Native American Rights Fund, American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana, and Harvard Law School’s Election Law Clinic.

“Today’s decision is a resounding win for Tribes in Montana who have only ever asked for a fair opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” said NARF Staff Attorney Jacqueline De León. “Despite repeated attacks on their voting rights, Tribes and Native voters in Montana stood strong, and today the Montana Supreme Court affirmed that the state’s legislative actions were unconstitutional. Native voices deserve to be heard and this decision helps ensure that happens.”

Read More: Western Native Voice et al v. Jacobsen et al

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