#NativeVote16: A first! Montana congressional debates will take place on tribal lands: Courts side with Native voters in ND

By MARK TRAHANT
News From Indian Country

Denise Juneau and Ryan Zinke have agreed to a series of congressional debates across Montana. And half of those debates will occur in Indian Country.

The first debate will be in Frazer within the Fort Peck Assiniboine Sioux Tribal Nation. That  will take place on August 29.

Both campaigns have also agreed to a debate on the Crow Nation but the details remain to be worked out.
“I’m pleased Congressman Zinke has agreed to debate me in Billings, Great Falls, Frazer and Crow Agency, and address the issues that are vitally important to Montana voters,” Denise Juneau said. “It’s time Congressman Zinke explain why he’s voted to cut public lands funding, voted to transfer management of our lands to politically-appointed boards, voted to slash funding for Pell grants, and voted to limit health care for Montana women.”

“We are very excited to announce such a historic debate schedule with two debates east of Billings and two on reservations, including in Fort Peck where I am proud to be an adopted member,” said Congressman Ryan Zinke. “Eastern Montana and the sovereign nations are equally as important as Billings, Great Falls and other population centers, but they often don’t get the attention they deserve. I’m looking forward to speaking directly with voters from these communities about how we can work together to get America and Montana back on the right track.”

This will be interesting. Obviously it’s historic: Two congressional debates in Native communities is unprecedented. But beyond that it’s important because these two tribal homelands are facing extraordinary challenges with violence, addiction, and the loss of jobs from the natural resource economy. There will be plenty to talk about. Especially if the candidates address their very different approaches to the role of the federal government when it comes to these issues.

Two other debates are scheduled: One in Billings on Sept. 1, and in Great Falls, on Oct. 5. The Libertarian candidate, Mike Fellows, has also been invited to participate in each debate.

A friend writes: “Having Indian candidates for office is certainly a big plus, but their chances of getting elected is certainly reduced by these voter ID laws, in North Dakota, Arizona and Alaska.”

And those are not the only states. Indeed across the country Republican legislatures have used a variety of measures to try and shrink the number of voters, making it harder for people to exercise their right to vote. Native Americans are particularly at risk for a variety of reasons.

August 1st a federal court agreed and said Native American voters were being singled out by a North Dakota voter identification law. A little background: North Dakota is the only state that does not have voter registration. From the state: “You may simply bring acceptable proof of ID and residency to the polls in order to vote.” Last year the Legislature enacted strict ID requirements that, among other things, made several forms of ID unacceptable (especially tribal IDs and university IDs).

U.S. District Judge Daniel L. Hovland said North Dakota has no history of voter fraud. However he wrote: “The undisputed evidence before the court reveals that Native Americans face substantial and disproportionate burdens in obtaining each form of ID deemed acceptable under the new law.” There is also “undisputed evidence that more than 3,800 Native Americans may likely be denied the right to vote in the upcoming general election in November 2016 absent injunctive relief.”

There are a record number of Native American candidates running in North Dakota this year. There are three statewide candidates, Chase Iron Eyes, who’s running for the state’s only congressional seat, plus Ruth Buffalo is running for the post of Insurance Commissioner and Marlo Hunte-Beaubrun is seeking a seat on the three-member Public Services Commission.

Ruth Buffalo posted on Facebook: “Many Thanks to those who took courage and stood up, for ALL of us. Macigiraac!”

“Congrats to the Natives who get to Vote this year!” Chase Iron Eyes posted on Facebook. Iron Eyes said that Native Americans were targeted by right-wing politicians. “I am here to call out these extreme measures to suppress the Native Vote. People, don’t be afraid to call it like it is. Only stabile homeowners are sure to have an accurate physical address on their ID like the new law required, Indians only have PO Boxes on the Rez.”

Judge Hovland reached the same conclusion. He wrote: “One reason is that many Native Americans do not have residential addresses, and the Post Office delivers their mail to a post office box.”

And recently courts have overruled voter restrictions in Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, and Indiana.

But in Wisconsin the courts did not go far enough. “We have taken several steps backward on opening up the process to inclusiveness,” said Paul DeMain, publisher of News From Indian Country. “After a decade of getting Indian Country involved, registered and going to the polls we have faced a series of setback with the Republican controlled Senate, Assembly and Governor passing restrictive voting laws requiring photo ID’s with elements not provided on tribal identification, restricting early voting days, hours and the ability of independent groups to conduct voter registration. Several parts of the law have been struck down in recent days, based upon the ruling of federal judges that the laws were based less on voting integrity then they were on limiting the voting abilities of Milwaukee’s black community.”

DeMain said the court’s main ruling impacting the August 9th primary only “struck down a limitation on the ability of local clerks to allow early voting on weekends and after hours.”  The ruling has since been put on hold.

Writing in The New York Times, law professor Richard L. Hasen, said the Republican legislatures have overplayed their hand and the tide against voting rights could be turning. “The struggle is not over,” Hasen wrote, “but this wave of court decisions means that more eligible voters should get a chance to register to vote and cast a ballot in November. These votes will help elect a president whose choices for judges and justices will very likely seal the fate of voting rights (and much more) for a generation.”

Mark Trahant is an independent journalist and a faculty member at the University of North Dakota as the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism. Trahant reports and comments on events and trends on his blog at TrahantReports.Com and on Facebook, Twitter (@TrahantReports) and other social media. He does a weekly audio commentary for Native Voice One. And, every day for nearly a decade, Trahant has written a 140-character rhyme based on a daily news story (@newsrimes4lines).

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