New satellite election offices near and on American Indian Reservations in Montana saw low turnout before the primary, but state and tribal officials are still calling the effort to expand voting equality a success.
"I visited them last week and the week before. The week before I went to Heart Butte. And then last week I visited five," says Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
"I was impressed that the county election administrators had everything set up. It was all very well organized. And it was a little light turnout, but that's typical of a primary."
In 2012, the Secretary of State and county election officials were sued by several tribal members for not providing Native Americans with equal access to voting. The suit was settled in 2014 and part of the agreement created satellite offices to benefit three reservations.
Last year, the Secretary of State issued a directive to create additional satellite offices. There are now 13 locations across nine counties that provide early voting and late registration to six tribal nations.
Marci McLean with the advocacy group Western Native Voice says satellite offices can eliminate barriers of distance and discrimination. But right now she says education about the new offices isn’t quite keeping up with their services, because they’re so new.
"And that is the hardest part of all of this work. Well, I wouldn’t say the hardest; the part of this work that is going undone by anybody else. It’s been hard because the people in the reservation communities don’t have a complete understanding of what this 30 day period is," McLean says.
Those 30 days refer the month before elections when these offices are open. Most of them aren’t open on Election Day. Instead they provide services leading up to the election.
"A lot of the people’s responses have been, ‘I thought I could only vote on election day’ and ‘I didn’t know how to register to vote’, ‘I didn’t know I had to register to vote,' so there was a lot of uninformed citizens out there."
She says over the past two weeks advocates have been learning the best ways to teach people about how these offices help voters. She expects better turnout in the general election after a summer of voter education and outreach.
"If we are talking equitable, you need an office in every location because the reservation communities are spread so far out. For instance, on the Blackfeet Reservation the satellite office is in Browning, which is still 30 miles away from one of the larger outlying communities. That is still a drive for a community that again, experiences a high poverty and all that negative stuff. So it's not completely equitable right now, but it is a step in the right direction. And at least brings that service to their community."
County election officials also pinned low turnout — at this point — on the lack of voter interest in the primary, and the absence of education about the new offices.
"I only had I believe 10 in Crow Agency, and 11 in Busby," says Dulcie Bear Don't Walk.
Bear Don’t Walk is an election administrator for Big Horn County, which serves the Crow and Northern Cheyenne Reservations. The county opened a second satellite office this year in Busby. Bear Don’t Walk says she didn’t see as much of an effort to get voters engaged this year, even though there were more voting services.
"There wasn’t a huge push from the organizations that usually go to get voters and bring them into the office. There wasn’t a huge push from them until the last week or two, and so I think that is why our numbers were so low."
Chouteau County Clerk and Recorder Lana Claassen also said turnout was low at the Rocky Boy office.
"We had zero voters the first two Wednesdays. The third Wednesday we had 4 voters. And the fourth Wednesday we had 6 voters. We think there may have been better turnout if it had somehow been advertised a little better on the reservation."
While the new satellite offices for tribal nations haven’t yet brought in many voters, the Secretary of State’s Office is seeing increased participation from absentee voters statewide. The Secretary’s office is projecting absentee ballot return numbers to beat the 2014 rate of 73 percent.
When I asked Secretary of State Linda McCulloch if the new satellite offices meet the need of increased voting access in native communities, she kept her answer short.
"I think we’ve made a really good start."
[Correction: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said Montana tribes sued the Secretary of State and county election officials in 2012. Tribal members sued, not the tribes. We regret the error.]