Montana Dems Won't Endorse Native Voting Suit


Originally published in Indian Country Today in April 2013.

The Montana Democratic Party appears to have rebuffed a March 6, 2013, request from Mark Wandering Medicine, Northern Cheyenne, to endorse the Native side in the voting-rights lawsuit in which he is the lead plaintiff, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch. The case is now before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Linda McCulloch, a Democrat who is Montana’s secretary of state and head voting official, is the lead defendant. Below, Wandering Medicine (left) and fellow plaintiff Hugh Club Foot are seen discussing the lawsuit in Birney, Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne reservation.

The other 13 defendants are Republican and Democratic county officials who refused to set up on-reservation early-voting offices ahead of the 2012 election, citing lack of time and money. They ended up in court, facing 16 plaintiffs from Montana tribes seeking the polling stations. The defendants’ lead lawyer is South Dakota Republican Party secretary, Sara Frankenstein. The plaintiffs’ attorney is Steven Sandven, of Sioux Falls. Those backing the Native side include the U.S. Department of Justice, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief. 

Montana Democratic Party spokesperson Chris Saeger said its focus would remain on grassroots organizing. “That’s where our strength lies. Montana Democrats will continue to improve access to voting on reservations by registering people to vote and by helping them get to the polls.”

In his letter to the party, Wandering Medicine, a wounded Vietnam War veteran, said the question was whether the Montana party’s platform had any teeth. The document expresses broad sympathy for Native issues—including voting rights, as is typical of the Democratic Party’s long-term and well-known backing for equal enfranchisement.

“But does the Montana party have any real intent to support Native people?” asked Wandering Medicine in an interview with ICTMN. “Does their platform apply to the current situation in Montana? In broad terms, if the statements don’t apply here and now, it’s not fair to say they’re speaking in the best interests of Native Americans.”

Saeger delineated the party’s efforts. “To get out the vote in American Indian communities in the last election cycle, we recruited dozens of volunteers, provided countless rides to the polls, launched radio ads, registered thousands of voters on reservations, spent thousands of dollars and sent thousands of mail pieces. We will continue that commitment in 2014.” 

O.J. Semans, Rosebud Sioux and co-director with wife Barb Semans of voting-rights group Four Directions, said that wasn’t the point. “No matter how much they’re on the ground, one day for Native people to vote in Montana, Election Day, does not equal the 20 days, Election Day plus early voting, that everyone else gets.” (The Semans couple is shown left with Fort Belknap tribal leader Donovan Archambault.)

Traveling to non-Native county seats to early-vote is not an option, said Wandering Medicine, whose journey to his county seat is 180-plus miles round trip. “My people can’t make it. Many of us don’t have cars or don’t have gas money. In my village, we don’t have a gas station; we can’t vote by mail instead, because we don’t have a post office. This lawsuit comes down to one thing: Can we participate in the things we’re entitled to?”

Said Semans: “In 2013, Native American Indians are fighting voting-rights battles that African Americans fought in the Sixties. This is as important to tribes now as it was to them in 1965.”

Montana Democratic Party head Jim Elliott did not respond to ICTMN’s requests for an interview. McCulloch’s office has refused to comment because the lawsuit was ongoing. An official of the Montana Indian Democrats Council, Stacey Otterstrom, Little Shell Tribe, said the group discusses voting-rights issues “all the time.” However, said Otterstrom, the council had not discussed Wandering Medicine’s request, and only party spokesperson Saeger could comment on it. 

Photograph at top by Stephanie Woodard; photograph above by William Campbell. c. Stephanie Woodard.