HELENA, Mont. -- Native Americans are facing a series of barriers to voting in Montana's upcoming primary election. Due to COVID-19, all Montana counties are providing a vote-by-mail option.
Marci McLean, executive director of Western Native Voice, said this presents the first challenge for Native Americans on reservations - the overwhelming majority of whom have their mail delivered to a post office box. Because of the virus, McLean said, there are health risks with giving folks rides to ballot drop-offs or their post office, which can be miles away.
In addition, the new Ballot Interference Protection Act will prevent groups such as Western Native Voice from delivering more than six ballots at a time, curtailing a common practice of ballot collection in Native American communities.
"The Ballot Interference Protection Act and COVID and vote by mail - it's a triple whammy on our communities and the right and access to vote," McLean said.
McLean said her group picked up more than 800 ballots in the 2018 election. Ballots will be mailed on Friday for the June 2 primary.
The Ballot Interference Protection Act was passed by voters in 2018. Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote are challenging it in court, arguing the law disenfranchises Native Americans.
Jacqueline De Leon is an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, which is representing the groups along with ACLU of Montana. She said voter engagement groups on Native American reservations rely heavily on ballot collectors - who go to folks' homes throughout a community, pick up around 100 ballots and drop them off.
"And that's because they're putting on a ton of miles on their car, they're driving really long distances to get those ballots. And that keeps the person who is trying to vote from having to travel those distances themselves because they're just prohibitively far," De Leon said.
McLean's group is waiting to hear if a federal judge will block the law. In the meantime, she said her organization is implementing a robust digital campaign to get out the vote and is thinking of this primary as a trial run for November.
"We're all hands on deck for this primary election just in case it's the same in the general and we have to learn from this one how to fine-tune things for the general election," McLean said.