Renee LaPlant, an organizer with the Indigenous get-out-the-vote group Western Native Voice, is driving across the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.
“Glacier National Park is just right up there,” she says. “But the rest of it is mostly all of the reservation. It’s vast. It’s huge.”
So huge, LaPlant says, that many tribal members don’t have a way to reliably get into town and vote during elections, nor do their homes have mail service to send in an absentee ballot.
Western Native Voice staffers typically collect and deliver sealed absentee ballot envelopes for those residents, but a new Montana law prohibits anyone who receives a monetary benefit from doing so.
LaPlant and other voting rights advocates are concerned that limiting ballot collecting could disenfranchise residents who already have trouble making their voice heard.
“Many people are disabled. People are worried about their meals, their kids getting to school on time. There’s so many things that prevent our people from being able to just get out and vote,” LaPlant says.
Laura Roundine is one of those people. The 59-year-old Blackfeet woman was confined to her recliner after undergoing triple-bypass heart surgery a month before last year’s general election.
The coronavirus pandemic complicated her recovery. As case totals spiked on the reservation, Roundine’s doctor advised her to isolate at home, warning that she likely wouldn’t survive the virus, if she caught it.
Without mail service, Roundine didn’t know how she’d cast her ballot until a friend connected her with Western Native Voice.
“They were sent out to help us and I was so happy,” she says.
For Roundine, the new ballot collection law feels like an attack against tribal members.
“[It] makes us feel sad, makes us feel like we’re missing out,” she says. “I almost feel like we’re going back into a century where, next thing they’re going to say is, ‘Indians can’t vote.’ ”
Part of a larger Republican effort
As in other GOP-led states across the country, Republicans in Montana have recently enacted sweeping voting restrictions. In addition to the ballot collection law, they’ve added new voter ID restrictions and ended same-day voter registration.
Republican state lawmakers prioritized limiting ballot collecting this year after a similar 2018 initiative was struck down by a judge who said it disproportionately burdened older, low-income and Indigenous voters.
Republican state Rep. Wendy McKamey says the new law adds transparency to election procedures.
“If we can’t secure our voting and our elections, then we really have no hope of having a fair election,” she says.
Montana Democrats lined up to oppose the ballot collection policy, saying there’s no widespread voter fraud in the Treasure State.
They also worry it could hinder Montanans not specifically paid to collect ballots, like assisted living center staff who help residents mail absentee envelopes.
“Totally going overboard”
That could hurt voter turnout among residents at Touchmark senior living center in the capital city of Helena, where a group of friends meets every morning to discuss the news and occasionally rib each other over politics.
“Our sole goal is to get him to be a Republican,” says retired accountant Carl Tanberg, motioning toward a friend. “Everybody else is wise already.”
Though he considers himself a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, Tanberg says the GOP’s ongoing fixation with election fraud just divides lawmakers and distracts from substantive policy debates.
“I think they’re just totally going overboard there, Trump’s bunch,” he says. “Just a big mistake to keep pushing this. We’re never going to be a bipartisan type operation again.”
Tanberg votes in person when he can, but says he and other residents should be able to get help from a Touchmark employee with their absentee ballot.
Resident John Whitman, a Democrat and former teacher, votes absentee and thinks the law is a solution in search of a problem.
“I can’t imagine distrusting any employee of Touchmark from putting my ballot in a ballot box. That doesn’t make sense to me,” he says.
Montana Democrats and a coalition of tribes challenged the ballot collection measure’s constitutionality shortly after it was signed into law. Both groups have also filed suit against the new policy ending same-day voter registration.
The GOP-led legislature set aside $100,000 for the secretary of state’s office to defend the new election laws in court.