Montana Native Vote fears voter suppression; polling stations cite the law

Members of Montana Native Vote on Tuesday said several polling stations have turned away Native American voters, raising concerns over potential voter suppression within the Native community.

Leah Berry, political director with Montana Native Vote, cited issues in Poplar, Great Falls and Rocky Boy. Two of those three polling locations disputed the claims, saying they’re only following the law.

“I think in Great Falls, it was a lack of competency and not ill-intentioned,” Berry said Tuesday. “But at Fort Peck, I personally think the two people working the office were non-Native and (the voter) was a Native, and they were very unfriendly, even when I walked in the office.”

That instance occurred last week when a low-income Native American voter was no longer able to access his Post Office box, and therefore his ballot. Berry took him into the Poplar polling station to fill out the form for a replacement ballot, which he should have received on the spot.

“But they wouldn’t issue him a new ballot,” Berry said. “I learned after talking to the election officials that they had not allowed him to pick up a ballot the day before, either. They said they didn’t have the correct replacement forms for him to fill out at the office.”

For many voters using the Poplar office, that’s a challenge given the next closest polling station sits 22 miles away at Wolf Point.

Berry said the Poplar location has been unfriendly to Native American voters in the past. She said it’s open just two days a week and only for five hours, and it often runs out of forms.

“In years past, we’ve had issues in Fort Peck a lot, where they’ve run out of ballots or they’ve closed early, or people decide they’re going to take a long lunch break in the five hours the office is open,” Berry said.

“I think it’s not really caring about providing the services to those specific tribal communities. It almost always feels like a burden that they have to provide these. There’s not a dedication to providing those services for those communities.”

Jan Pancratz, deputy to the elections administrator in Roosevelt County, said it’s impossible for the Poplar office to run out of ballots because the facility has a ballot chart machine, allowing ballots to be printed on demand.

She said the individual voter in question was asked to retrieve his issued ballot from the Post Office.

“He was just asked to get his ballot and vote the ballot that was given to him,” Pancratz said. “He didn’t state that he had lost it. He just that he didn’t have it. It wasn’t that it was unavailable to him. It was right there at the Post Office.”

Montana Native Vote said it ran into issues in Great Falls after it turned in 50 voter registration forms on the last day the forms would be accepted. Berry said the office called the next day and said it couldn’t verify the Social Security number on all 50 forms.

Berry said the polling station told Montana Native Vote to take the forms back and find the 50 voters and bring them in to personally verify their Social Security number. Berry said she took images of the forms and said they were properly filled out.

“That was strange,” Berry said. “They (the polling station) said they were going to reconfirm that they couldn’t confirm their Social Security numbers. They wouldn’t say whether or not it was a glitch in their system.”

Rina Moore, elections administrator for Cascade County, confirmed that her office had received the voter registration cards in question, though they couldn’t be verified based on the information provided by the voters.

“The name, date of birth and Social Security, or the Montana ID or Montana driver’s license, has to verify in the system for us to register them,” said Moore. “We didn’t tell them we couldn’t register them, because they’ve been bringing people in. But we can’t put a bunch of people on the voter rolls we can’t verify through the Department of Justice.”

Moore said there’s no chance the system had a glitch. That same day, she said, they registered another 100 people.

“Several of the people (Montana Native Vote) has brought into the office, we can’t get them to verify,” Moore said. “None of them had any Montana ID or driver’s license number. Every one was just the last four of a Social Security number, which is fine, but it has to verify through the Department of Justice, and they don’t.”

Berry said Montana Native Vote has received reports of instances where the satellite office at Rocky Boy isn’t accepting absentee ballots. Rocky Boy couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.