Indigenous Disenfranchisement: A Montana Tradition Kept Alive Through Incarceration 

In 1776, the power to vote in the United States belonged solely to landowning white men over the age of 21. This grotesque power dynamic has been jealously guarded by lawmakers for centuries. 

In 1870, almost 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, the 15th Amendment supposedly secured voting rights for Black men. Aggressive measures, such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and discriminatory state laws, prevented the full exercise of this right. Women were denied suffrage until 1920. But for women of color, immigrant women, and women who faced extreme socioeconomic difficulties, the 19th Amendment failed to effectively guarantee voting rights. It wasn’t until the Indian Citizenship Act (Snyder Act) of 1924 that Native Americans were recognized as U.S. citizens—but it still took over 40 years after the Act for all 50 states to recognize Native American voting rights. Asian Americans were denied voting rights until 1952 under the Immigration and Nationality Act

Eventually, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 barred state voting limitations that targeted race, gender, and socioeconomic status. However, language minorities in the U.S. were not explicitly protected until 1975, and it took Congress until 1982, 39 years ago, to require accessibility protections for the elderly and people with disabilities. Exceptional amounts of time and effort have gone into ensuring basic voting liberties, yet the fight for equitable voting in the U.S. continues. Many states still persist in attempts to restrict voting rights

In Montana, habitual disenfranchisement remains prominently displayed by the State’s treatment of Indigenous voters. Despite mostly favorable rulings, cases such as Windy Boy v. Big Horn County (1986), Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch (2012), and Western Native Voice v. Stapleton (2020) make it clear that the voting rights of Indigenous peoples in Montana are constantly under attack. Last legislative session, Montana passed two discriminatory voting laws—HB 176 (prohibits same-day voting registration) and HB 530 (limits organized ballot collecting). In tandem, these bills enhance the difficulties of rural voting, particularly voting within rural reservations boundaries. Though proponents of these recent bills argue the new regulations reduce chances of election fraud, the design of HB 176 and HB 530 has a hugely disparate impact on the ability to vote for people within reservation boundaries. Though the Montana Legislature’s pattern of disenfranchisement attempts continue, Montana also manages to consistently restrict voting rights in another major way: felony convictions

In almost every state, a felony conviction significantly impacts a person’s voting rights. Although Montana is more lenient than others—it only prohibits voting while incarcerated compared to some states’ complete disenfranchisement—this restriction demonstrates a large bias against Montana’s Indigenous population. Regardless of opinion on the morality of felony disenfranchisement, Montana’s approach represents a continued effort to restrict the voting rights of Indigenous peoples because of their incredibly disproportionate rate of incarceration. Despite representing a fraction of Montana’s general population, Indigenous peoples make up 20% of the total state prison population. 

Most incarcerated Indigenous peoples in Montana are held for probation or parole violations—e.g., failure to enroll in or finish substance abuse treatment, failure to check in with their parole or probation officers, or impermissible drug and alcohol use. Though the Montana Legislature introduced some reforms in 2017 aimed to reduce re-sentencing for parole, probation, or conditional release violations, these reforms have not yet impacted Indigenous overrepresentation in Montana’s prison system. Failure to comply with conditions of release and this overwhelming disparity suggests the causes of Indigenous incarceration are systemic. As a result of forced assimilation, generational trauma, and government divestment, Indigenous peoples are statistically more likely to experience factors that are typically criminalized such as addiction, mental illness, shortage of affordable housing, limited access to food, and general poverty. Indigenous youth in the United States are statistically more likely to have contact with law enforcement and are three times as likely to be detained or committed to a juvenile facility than their white peers. 

Montana has a history of utilizing the legislature to suppress Indigenous voting rights. Although challenging problematic bills is essential to ensuring equitable voting rights, equally as important is addressing criminal justice reform. The extreme disparities in incarceration directly impact the voting rights of Montana’s Indigenous population. Without fixing the root causes of this disparity, Indigenous voters will continue to be silenced. 

L. Moose

Further reading:

Montana Lawmakers Reject Bill to Ease Voting for Native Americans 

Suit Targets Laws that Opponents Say Hurt Native Americans

Tribal Nations in Montana: A Handbook for Legislators

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