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Montana House shoots down bill to expand Native American voting access

Montana House shoots down bill to expand Native American voting access

The Montana House on Wednesday shot down a bill that aimed to expand voting opportunities for Native Americans on the state’s seven Indian reservations, two days after the legislation narrowly passed on a preliminary vote.

House Bill 613 would have required counties to maintain a satellite or alternate election office on any reservations they overlap with, beginning a month before Election Day, while leaving the days and hours of operation up to the two jurisdictions to figure out. It would have also directed counties to consider adding ballot drop-boxes while ensuring that tribal photo IDs, if used to register or vote, wouldn’t need an expiration date or a residential address to be considered valid.

While at least one tribal leader objected to the bill as overly watered down from its original form, committee members and Native voting advocates hoped it could be a starting point for removing long-standing barriers to voting on reservations.

“I think it’s a really serious issue that could be looked at over the interim to make it better,” Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, a Browning Democrat who helped lead the bipartisan working group that developed the compromise legislation, said Wednesday after the bill failed to clear the House.

He noted there’s still an outside possibility of a procedural maneuver to reconsider the bill in the House, but added, “We just need to pick up the pieces and keep building on that legislation, and maybe build a better one next session.”

Sponsored by Rep. Sharon Stewart Peregoy, the measure was the product of a week of work by a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House State Administration Committee. That work resulted in an amendment substantially scaling back the original proposals in the bill to make it more palatable to counties worried about absorbing the costs of a new set of mandates from the state. Two weeks ago, the 19-member panel voted unanimously to send the bill to the House floor.

The committee had heard testimony from tribal leaders and voting-rights advocates who noted that residents of rural reservations often live far from the county seat where election offices allow them to register to vote or cast their ballots. Those residents are also less likely to have money to get rides or the photo ID they may need to vote, they argued, and reservations typically lack residential mail delivery service.

President Andy Werk, Jr., of the Fort Belknap Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes, had called into one of the final work sessions to oppose the amended version of the bill. He argued it offered his tribe less than what they were already guaranteed under the terms of a legal settlement between several tribes, the state and some counties.

One of the “yes” votes to flip on Wednesday was that of Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, who said in an interview after Wednesday's vote that he changed his mind after speaking with tribal leadership in his district. Windy Boy’s House District 32 includes portions of the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy’s reservations.

“They were in support of the original bill, and then when all of the amendments were brought on in committee … that was the recommendation they came up with,” Windy Boy said.

Two days earlier, during a lengthy debate on the floor, several Republican lawmakers had expressed concerns with the costs that could fall to the counties as a result of the legislation. The bill allows tribes and counties to enter into cost-sharing agreements, but the state cannot obligate sovereign tribes to pay.

Ulm Rep. Wendy McKamey, the Republican committee chair who had helped lead the effort to find compromise on the bill, expressed frustration that it had failed to clear the House after earlier bipartisan support.

“I don’t know how they could possibly vote against this, I don’t. Because it requires accountability and it requires cooperation.”

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