Dustin Monroe, an Assiniboine from the Blackfeet Reservation and the director of the nonprofit Montana Native Vote, says he's not surprised by a lawsuit the Montana ACLU filed last week alleging that the Wolf Point School District on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation is discriminating against Native voters.
"This is nothing new. This is a common theme," Monroe says. "These are things that we're still fighting."
Montana has for decades been a battleground for American Indians seeking equal representation. In the landmark lawsuit, Windy Boy et al vs. Big Horn County, a federal judge found in 1986 that Big Horn County had diluted the minority Native vote inside large non-native voting districts, a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. That decision set the stage for future lawsuits and, ultimately, the creation of an increasing number of American Indian-majority voting blocks.
The ACLU's Aug. 7 lawsuit, Ronald Jackson et al vs. the Board of Trustees at Wolf Point, raises claims similar to those presented in Windy Boy. Plaintiffs allege that inside the Wolf Point School Board's white-dominated voting district, one board member is elected per 143 residents. The American Indian-majority district, meanwhile, has one board member for every 841 residents.
Eighty percent of students in the Wolf Point School District are American Indian.
This month's ACLU case comes on the heels of Wandering Medicine at al vs. Linda McCulloch. Filed in October by 16 enrolled members of the Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, it alleges the state's failure to establish satellite voting offices hinders the ability of tribal members to participate in elections. That case is slated to be heard by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals next month.
Monroe says that this past year's lawsuits show that there's still work to be done. But he adds that cases like these have helped forge a new era in which American Indians are increasingly casting ballots. During Montana's 2012 general election, voter turnout in American Indian-dominated districts targeted with get-out-the-vote efforts was 61 percent. Montana's overall voter turnout was just 58.4 percent.
With roughly 78,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives living in Montana, Monroe says it doesn't take a lot of number crunching to see that tribal populations now wield significant power in a state known for close elections.
"The governor wouldn't be where he is without the Native vote," Monroe says.