BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge on Tuesday denied an emergency order sought by a group of American Indians who wanted to force officials to provide satellite voting on Montana reservations, effectively putting off resolution of the issue until after Election Day.
Fifteen Indians from the remote Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations argued in a lawsuit filed earlier this month that the long distances they must drive for early voting and late registration leaves them disadvantaged compared to white voters.
But U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull said regardless of whether voting discrimination exists, the plaintiffs did not show they were unable to vote for the candidates of their choice.
"I'm not arguing that the opportunity is equal for Indian persons as it is to non-Indians," Cebull said. "Because of poverty, because of the lack of vehicles and that sort of thing, it's probably not equal. However, you have to prove ... that they can't elect candidates of their choice."
Plaintiffs' attorney Steven Sandven said there was too little time before the election to appeal Cebull's ruling on the injunction request. But the lawsuit alleging discrimination by county and state officials will continue, he said.
"Now we're in it for the long haul," Sandven said.
The lawsuit targets officials from Rosebud, Blaine and Bighorn counties and the Montana Secretary of State's Office.
Plaintiff and Fort Belknap tribal council member Edward Moore, Jr. said he and his neighbors in the town of Hayes have to travel more than 120 miles roundtrip to vote early in person at the county courthouse in Chinook. That costs money for gas and requires time off from work — hurdles that are magnified in a community with high poverty levels and where many don't have vehicles.
"It's a big burden," Moore said, adding that many people "may not vote at all" as a result.
Montanans can vote early absentee ballots by mail or by delivering ballots in person to county offices. Late registration begins at county offices a month before Election Day. Voting on Nov. 6 was not at issue in the case.
U.S. Department of Justice attorneys submitted court filings in support of the plaintiffs. Those included a deposition from a University of Wyoming geography professor who said American Indians from the reservations must drive at least twice as far than whites to vote before Election Day.
American Indians also suffer from much higher rates of poverty, further inhibiting their ability to reach county courthouses that are the only place in the three counties to vote early or register late.