In April 2012, Washington, D.C., lobbyist and Blackfeet tribal member Tom Rodgers noted a troubling fact about his parents' hometown of Browning. Rodgers had returned to Montana for the funeral of a Blackfeet member killed in Iraq, and realized in passing that there was no satellite elections office to deal with early voting and late-voter registration on the reservation.
The same held true for Fort Belknap, the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations.
Now, tribal members are fighting an intense legal battle alongside Rodgers in the name of American Indian voting rights. A lawsuit before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals contends that by failing to establish satellite voting offices in the towns of Fort Belknap, Lame Deer and Crow Agency, Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch and election officials in three Montana counties violated the 14th Amendment, the Montana Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"We will win," says Rodgers, who nearly a decade ago exposed lobbyist Jack Abramoff's fraudulent overbilling of Indian clients. "We will persevere. We're right. We're right on the law, and more importantly, we're right on the ethics and morality here."
The suit, originally filed in District Court, has made national news over the past year, and Rodgers says the Ninth Circuit judges were "awestruck" during oral arguments on Oct. 10. They queried both sides aggressively, but in the end, Rodgers feels confident. The U.S. Department of Justice is backing the tribal plaintiffs. So is the National Congress of American Indians and the American Civil Liberties Union. Still, Rodgers maintains "it shouldn't have to take this."
The initial complaint is clear regarding the plaintiffs' frustrations. For starters, absentee voting activity hasn't increased in Indian Country to nearly the degree it has in Montana as a whole. Factor in staggering poverty and unemployment statistics and the distance between some tribal communities and the polls, and Indian groups believe satellite voting offices could increase voter turnout in Indian Country by upwards of 250 percent.
Montana isn't the only state to spawn such frustrations. A similar case in South Dakota has gone to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. National advocates and the DOJ have stepped in there, too. Indian Country is poised for two powerful precedents when it comes to voting rights, Rodgers says, and it all happened in less than two years.
"It's about empowerment," he says. "These two cases, together, will apply to every tribe west of the Mississippi."