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New Law In Montana Limits Who Can Help Voters With Absentee Ballots


A new Montana law limits who can help someone submit their absentee ballot. Voting rights advocates are concerned because they say the law could disenfranchise residents who are already having trouble making their voices heard. Yellowstone Public Radio's Kevin Trevellyan reports.

KEVIN TREVELLYAN, BYLINE: Renee LaPlant, an organizer with the indigenous get-out-the-vote group Western Native Voice, climbs into her SUV.


TREVELLYAN: She's driving across the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northwest Montana.

RENEE LAPLANT: Glacier National Park is just right up there, but the rest of it is mostly all the reservation. It's vast. It's huge.

TREVELLYAN: So huge, LaPlant says, that many tribal members don't have a way to reliably get into town and vote during election years nor do their homes have mail service to send an absentee ballot. Western Native Voice staffers typically collect and deliver sealed absentee envelopes for those residents, but a new law prohibits that. LaPlant says it will result in voters falling through the cracks.

LAPLANT: Many people are disabled. People are worried about their meals, their kids getting to school on time. There's so many things that prevent our people from being able to just get out and vote.

TREVELLYAN: Laura Roundine is one of those people. The 59-year-old Blackfeet woman was confined to her recliner after undergoing triple bypass heart surgery a month before the election.

LAURA ROUNDINE: Yeah, I have a cushion in here that...

TREVELLYAN: The pandemic complicated her recovery. As case totals spiked on the reservation, Roundine's doctors advised isolating at home because she likely wouldn't survive the virus. Without mail service, Roundine didn't know how she'd cast her ballot until a friend connected her with Western Native Voice.

ROUNDINE: They were sent out, you know, to help us. And I was so happy.

TREVELLYAN: For Roundine, the new ballot collection law feels like an attack against tribal members.

ROUNDINE: It makes us feel sad, makes us feel like we're missing out. I almost feel like we're going back into a century where the next thing they're going to say, Indians can't vote.

TREVELLYAN: As in other GOP-led states across the country, Republicans in Montana have recently enacted sweeping voting restrictions. In addition to the ballot collection law, they've also added new voter ID restrictions and ended same-day voter registration. Republican State Representative Wendy McKamey says the ballot collection law adds transparency to election procedures.

WENDY MCKAMEY: If we can't secure our voting and our elections, then we really have no hope of having a fair election.

TREVELLYAN: Montana Democrats lined up to oppose the ballot collection policy saying there's no widespread voter fraud in the Treasure State. They worried it could also hinder Montanans not specifically paid to collect ballots, like assisted living center staff who help residents mail absentee envelopes.


JERRY: How you doing?



TREVELLYAN: That could hurt voter turnout at Touchmark senior living center in the capital city of Helena, where a group of friends meet every morning to discuss the news and occasionally rib each other over politics.

CARL TANBERG: Our sole goal is to get him to be a Republican.


TANBERG: Everybody else is wise already.

TREVELLYAN: Retired accountant Carl Tanberg considers himself a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. Yet Tanberg says the GOP's ongoing fixation with election fraud just divides lawmakers and distracts from substantive policy debates.

TANBERG: I think you're just going totally overboard there, Trump's bunch - just a big mistake to keep pushing this. We're never going to be a bipartisan-type operation again.

TREVELLYAN: Tanberg votes in person when he can but says he and other Touchmark residents should be able to get help from an employee with their absentee ballot. Resident John Whitman, a Democrat and former teacher, votes absentee and thinks the law is a solution in search of a problem.

WHITMAN: I can't imagine distrusting any employee of Touchmark from putting my ballot in the ballot box. That doesn't make sense to me.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It doesn't make sense to me, either.

TREVELLYAN: Montana Democrats and a coalition of tribes filed legal challenges to the ballot collection law, saying it's unconstitutional.

For NPR News, I'm Kevin Trevellyan in Helena. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin is a UM Journalism graduate student and reporter for MTPR.