A voting rights lawsuit from members of three American Indian tribes in Montana will go forward after a federal judge rejected attempts by state and county officials to dismiss the case.
Members of the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap tribes want county officials to set up satellite voting offices to make up for the long distances they must travel to reach courthouses for early voting or late registration.
Judge Donald Molloy said in a Wednesday order that the plaintiffs’ claims of discrimination are plausible enough that the case should proceed.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act prohibited state-sanctioned discrimination against minorities.
Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and officials from Blaine, Rosebud and Big Horn counties were named as defendants in the lawsuit, which has been pending since before the 2012 election.
Molloy rejected a claim that there could not have been voting rights violations because members of Indian tribes can and have elected tribal representatives to local and state offices.
That argument was accepted by former U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull as part of his rationale for turning down an injunction sought by the Indian plaintiffs in the lead-up to the 2012 election.
But Molloy indicated that the success of some Indian candidates in elections does not exclude the possibility of continued discrimination.
The Missoula-based judge took over the case after Cebull resigned last year, in the wake of revelations that he’d sent hundreds of racist and otherwise inappropriate emails, including at least one involving President Barack Obama.
Attorneys for the state have argued that McCulloch shouldn’t be included in the case because satellite voting decisions are up to counties. Molloy disagreed, saying her office has the power to issue directives on satellite voting to county election administrators and the duty to make sure elections are uniformly fair.
Voter turnout on Montana reservations runs at about 30 percent, but turnout for tribal elections that require no long-distance travel runs as high as 70 percent. Plaintiffs say the satellite offices could increase turnout in county, state and national elections.
County officials have argued that it would be too difficult to train workers for the satellite offices and to rent the equipment to run them.
Molloy granted a defense request to remove three of the 16 plaintiffs from the case.
Two of the dismissed plaintiffs failed to prove they were registered voters. The third lived closer to the county seat — where early voting and late registration already take place — than to a proposed satellite voting office, Molloy said.