2 tribes involved in lawsuit settlement miss deadline to open satellite election offices

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GREAT FALLS, Montana — Tribal officials on the Fort Belknap and Northern Cheyenne reservations have missed a deadline to open satellite election offices there, after Native Americans from those reservations won a legal settlement to open the offices and improve access to early voting.

A dozen plaintiffs from the two reservations, along with the Crow reservation, won the right to open the satellite offices in a June settlement of a federal voting-rights lawsuit against state and local elections officials. The plaintiffs had argued they were discriminated against because they had to drive long distances to county courthouses to register late and vote early in elections.

The settlement called for counties moving their election administration offices to tribal buildings at the reservations two days a week during the month leading up to Election Day. The tribes had until Aug. 1 to notify the counties whether they wanted the offices.

The offices are running on the Crow Reservation, but Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap tribal officials missed the deadline, the Great Falls Tribune reported (http://gftrib.com/10aCVQ0) in a story published Sunday.

Blaine County Attorney Donald Ranstrom said the letter requesting the alternate voting office on Fort Belknap arrived four days after the deadline, and county officials decided that opening an office anyway could invalidate the settlement.

"The concern we had, and continue to have, is we spent a lot of time and a lot of energy and money and resources getting to where we got to with this agreement. We weren't going to allow any argument to be made that 'by modifying the terms, you've scrapped the agreement,'" Ranstrom said.

The Northern Cheyenne tribe faxed a letter to Rosebud County more than a month after the deadline, county election administrator Geraldine Custer said.

By then, it was too late to implement the alternate election office in part because the county had passed over funding to purchase a ballot printing machine, she said.

Tribal officials did not return calls seeking comment.

O.J. Seamans, executive director of the national Indian voting rights organization Four Directions, said the deadline was an excuse and the counties could have opened the offices if they wanted to under guidelines set forth by the secretary of state.

"I believe the county can do it. You take away their excuse, and it comes down to this: We don't want Indians to vote," Seamans said.

Fort Belknap and Northern Cheyenne tribal officials will be able to request satellite election offices in future elections.


Information from: Great Falls Tribune, http://www.greatfallstribune.com

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