U.S. judge explains ruling on Indian voting; plaintiffs promise appeal

2012-11-07T15:15:00Z 2013-03-28T11:05:10Z U.S. judge explains ruling on Indian voting; plaintiffs promise appealBy CLAIR JOHNSON cjohnson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

In a ruling filed on Election Day, Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull formally explained his earlier decision denying an emergency order to force election officials to provide satellite voting on Montana Indian reservations.

But the lawsuit alleging voting discrimination claims will continue despite the ruling, said plaintiffs’ representatives.

“Our effort begins again today,” said Tom Rodgers, an enrolled Blackfeet tribal member who grew up in Montana and is a Washington D.C.-area lobbyist. "We are working on a notice of appeal, and we will file it. We’re going to do an audit of the election results."

“They (the defendants) persevered for the first five minutes of the first quarter. They have the home field advantage in that court. The judge was wrong on the law, and the defendants are on the wrong side of history,” Rodgers said.

On the plaintiffs’ side, Rodgers said, is a supporting brief filed by the U.S. Department of Justice. “I will take the legal analysis by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division over home field advantage any day,” he said.

Cebull did not dispute that American Indians on three reservations involved in the suit face greater hardships to in-person absentee voting than nonreservation residents.

However, he said, the evidence showed Montana law provides other ways of voting and that Indians living on reservations are able to elect representatives of their choice.  Therefore the plaintiffs were “not very likely to succeed on the merits” of their claims under the Voting Rights Act.

Further, Cebull said equal-protection claims also were unlikely to succeed because there was not enough evidence to show that election officials had a discriminatory intent in their decisions not to open satellite election offices.

In October, 16 Indians from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations argued in a lawsuit that the long distances they must drive for in-person absentee voting and late registration leaves them disadvantaged compared with white voters.

The suit named county officials in Big Horn, Rosebud and Blaine counties and the Montana Secretary of State’s Office.

Montanans can vote early absentee ballots by mail or by delivering ballots in person to county offices. Late registration starts a month before Election Day. Voting on Election Day was not at issue in the case.

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