Lawsuit alleges voter fraud on Crow Reservation 5-23-07

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A federal lawsuit filed by a group opposed to American Indian sovereignty alleges voter fraud and discrimination by Crow tribal members during the November general election, and claims state and local officials failed to ensure a fair vote.

The lawsuit contends Crow tribal members formed a slate of candidates “based on race” and violated state and federal election laws governing political campaigns. The suit also charges that reports of “double-voting” by tribal members in the November election were not thoroughly investigated by federal officials.

Among the plaintiffs is the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, a South Dakota-based group that contends tribal governments should be abolished and the U.S. Constitution should trump American Indian law.

The lawsuit claims that as a result of the alleged irregularities, nontribal members in Big Horn County were denied equal voting rights. Big Horn County includes much of the Crow Reservation. Elections for more than a dozen county positions were included on the November ballot, according to plaintiff's attorney Richard Stephens.

John Doyle, a tribal member and Big Horn County commissioner, denied there was a Crow-only slate of candidates in the election. And he said no complaints were ever made to the commission about any possible irregularities on Election Day.

“There's always rumors going around about them threatening a lawsuit, but nobody's ever filed a compliant” with the County Commission, he said.

The defendants in the case, filed in U.S. District Court in Billings, include Secretary of State Brad Johnson, Deputy Secretary of State Elaine Graveley and Big Horn County Clerk Cyndy Maxwell.

The suit charges they failed to enforce state and federal voting laws on the Crow Reservation.

“In principal, it seems like you should not have a voting place where the voting laws could not be enforced,” Stephens said.

In addition to the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance, plaintiffs in the case include Montana Citizens Rights and Big Horn County residents Christopher Kortlander, Terry Coddens and Deborah Winburn. Winburn lost a 2006 bid to become county sheriff. The suit says the plaintiffs are not Crow members.

A spokesman for the Secretary of State's Office said it had received complaints regarding the 2006 election and the Crow reservation, but had passed them along to the U.S. Attorney's Office and the state Attorney General's Office for further investigation.

“We are aware that there have been allegations made,” said the spokesman, Bowen Greenwood. “Once a crime is committed, the law requires a different agency to prosecute it.”

Maxwell was not available for comment Wednesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of any ongoing investigation.

A spokeswoman for the Montana Attorney General's Office, Lynn Solomon, said her office was informed of the complaints by Secretary of State Johnson's office, but lacked jurisdiction to pursue an investigation.

The Citizens Equal Rights Alliance has been labeled “anti-Indian” by the publication Indian Country Today.

Travis McAdam, research director with the Montanan Human Rights Network, said the alliance has a history of exploiting conflicts between tribes and nontribal residents living on or near reservations.

“They're always looking for a test case that would open up an avenue for people to go after tribes all across the country on a similar issue,” McAdam said.

Elaine Willman, chairwoman of the alliance, said the group is not anti-Indian but anti-tribal government. “We find federal Indian policy, tribal government, unconstitutional,” she said.