The plaintiffs on Wednesday asked a federal judge in Billings to issue an emergency order requiring the state and counties to open satellite election offices on the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations.
They say they now must drive between 27 and 113 miles round trip to reach their county offices, the only places that allow in-person absentee voting and late registration, both of which began Tuesday.
"Our position is the state has the duty to provide the same opportunities for absentee voting as non-Indians," said plaintiffs' attorney Terryl Matt. "We have a system designed right now where non-Indians can walk in and vote (absentee). So why can't Indians?"
Traveling can pose an especially heavy financial burden for residents of reservation communities where unemployment rates can top 70 percent and the poverty rate is as high as 39 percent, the lawsuit said.
Montanans can vote early by mail or by delivering absentee ballots in person to county offices. Late registration begins at county offices a month before Election Day.
Voting access on Election Day is not an issue in the lawsuit.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said Thursday she sympathizes with the plaintiffs and would support opening satellite offices. However, she added, a legal opinion from the state attorney general's office on the matter said the offices are discretionary and the state elections agency can't force the individual counties to open them.
Also, time is running short before the Nov. 6 election.
"I think their claims have merit. I wish they would have started it a year or more ago," McCulloch said.
Matt said Blackfeet tribal leaders first made their request in May, but were denied until the attorney general's opinion in July. Then, Glacier County authorities decided to add the absentee and late registration services to a satellite clerk and recorder's office already open in Browning.
Tribal members from the Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations separately requested their counties also open offices, but were denied. Reasons included time constraints along with staffing, cost and security concerns.
"We're talking about an important fundamental right. It shouldn't be an administrative inconvenience that stops us from the fundamental right to vote," Matt said.
Native Americans are considered a protected class because of historical discrimination, so any action that hurts their ability to vote, no matter how subtle, is a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act, Matt said. That's the case even if the Indian plaintiffs are in the same situation as their non-Indian rural neighbors, she said.
The plaintiffs also said mailing their absentee ballots is not a desirable alternative.
"Plaintiffs and Indians in general prefer to see their ballot arrive to its final destination and do not trust that their vote will get counted if sent through the mail," the lawsuit said.
It was not immediately clear when U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull would rule on the request for a preliminary injunction forcing the satellite offices to open.