Federal judge dismisses Crow voter fraud suit

By Matthew Brown
Billings, Montana (AP) 11-07

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit during early November that alleged voter fraud and discrimination by Crow tribal members during Big Horn County’s general election last November.

U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull said the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that “mistakes” in the election – including unsecured ballot boxes and a poll watcher dismissed early – pointed to a broader practice of discrimination.

The lawsuit also had alleged that Crow members had formed a race-based slate of candidates that excluded non-Indian county residents. Cebull said there were no facts offered by the plaintiffs to support the claim that non-Crow candidates were at a disadvantage.

Big Horn County includes much of the Crow Reservation. Elections for more than a dozen county positions were included on the November ballot.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in May, included the Citizen Equal Rights Alliance, a South Dakota-based group that contends tribal governments should be abolished.

Secretary of State Brad Johnson, former state elections division deputy Elaine Graveley and Big Horn County Clerk Cyndy Maxwell were named as defendants. The suit alleged they failed to closely monitor the election.

“Unfortunately for the plaintiff, not every mistake made during an election serves as the predicate for a Voting Rights Act violation,” Cebull wrote in his order dismissing the case.

In July, the American Civil Liberties Union intervened on behalf of the defendants, claiming the litigation was part of a pattern to suppress political participation by American Indians.

Elaine Willman, chairwoman of the Citizen Equal Rights Alliance, said she was not surprised by Cebull’s ruling.

She said state and federal officials have proven reluctant to stop tribal leaders from interfering with non-tribal elections. And she predicted that problem will recur in other states and counties.

“In our view this case is just beginning,” she said. “We have a real problem when a county government can be taken over and fully controlled by a tribal government and doing so does not violate election laws.”

She said her group had been on the verge of amending its lawsuit with additional information when Cebull handed down his order Monday. No decision had been made on whether to appeal, she said.

Other plaintiffs included Montana Citizens Rights and Big Horn County residents Christopher Kortlander, Terry Coddens and Deborah Winburn. Winburn lost a 2006 bid to become county sheriff.

Maxwell, the Big Horn County clerk, said the dismissal lifts “a huge weight.”

“I’m anticipating a huge election next year, and I was hoping this would be resolved before I had to turn my attention to that election,” she said.