Montana is holding its election mostly by mail for the first time this year. Under a directive from Gov. Steve Bullock—and despite a lawsuit by the Trump administration attempting to block the effort—45 of the state’s 56 counties scrapped plans for polling stations and sent out mail-in ballots to registered voters instead. (Voters who still wish to vote in person can drop their ballots off at a county election office.)
In the rural state of just over 1 million people, voting comes with challenges—especially for those living in Indian Country, where unemployment is high, distances are vast, and mail isn’t always a reliable option. Some voter advocacy organizations have attempted to simplify the process by returning voters’ ballots for them. Still, those organizations have found themselves limited by the coronavirus pandemic and unable to help with transportation and offer more personal assistance, as they might in a normal year.
To get a sense of what organizations are doing on the ground, and what they’re hearing from Indigenous voters during an unprecedented election year, Slate spoke with Lance Fourstar, a regional organizer for Montana Native Vote on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. We spoke as he made a 45-minute drive to help a family member vote. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: How are you doing?
Lance Fourstar: I’m doing pretty good. I’m on my way to bring my cousin to go register to vote. The county election administrator is in Glasgow, which is off of the reservation’s western edge and predominantly non-Indian. It’s about 40 miles west.
Why’s your cousin registering to vote now?
She’s been a stay-at-home mom. She hasn’t really participated in the electoral process, since she has been pretty isolated, as her world is in Oswego, which has about 30 people. But she has time now that she’s not raising smaller children. She’s now one of my digital organizers. The first thing that we need to do to get her squared away with familiarizing herself with the electoral process is to get her registered.
What have these last weeks been like for you?
I have recruited a number of digital organizers who are working primarily at home. We’ve been able to get them cellphones, and they contact registered voters. We’ve recruited quite a few people across the state of Montana, on every reservation, and in a couple of cities like Billings and Missoula and Great Falls.
The 2020 election is all mail-in. We are going to figure out how we can get to the voters, figure out their voter status, and then, if they need to get to the county election office to return it, we’ll do what we can to help them make a plan to vote. Some people in these rural communities really may not have a way of getting their ballot into the county election office to be counted. We’re more than happy to come and pick it up.
Is this any different because of the coronavirus pandemic?
We were just given essential worker status by the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes. All of my organizers are mandated to take a training from a Northern Cheyenne tribal member who specializes in COVID-19 trainings.
We’re going to practice safe protocol. We have hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes. We wear masks. And we’re also practicing social distancing by staying at least 6 feet away. With our protocol, to pick up ballots, we are utilizing rubber gloves. We have a 2-pound freezer bag that we can carry around and have a voter deposit their ballot into it. We seal it, and then throw away the latex gloves and take that to the county elections administrator with no contact between the actual paper material and our hands. So we’re doing the best that we can. We’re putting our lives on the line out there to ensure that the Native vote is heard.
Why is there a need for you to drive people’s ballots for them?
We are living up here in an isolated part of the pocket of the country, and there’s very few economic opportunities. In the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, we have an 80 percent unemployment rate. So a lot of people depend on public transportation. We have a fleet of maybe five or six tribal transportation buses that were able to transport people, but that has been shut down. If a person doesn’t have a personal vehicle, then they must depend upon relatives or friends to get them places.
You also have the long distances that people must travel between cities. We live on a reservation that’s 110 miles from the eastern to the western end. If somebody needed to get from Culbertson to Glasgow, it’s going to be about a 140-mile trip. I’m taking my relative now—that’s a 90-mile round trip for myself. So it takes quite a bit of gas money. And when it snows, snow accumulation can grow up to about 4 or 5 feet at some points. We had a pretty big snowfall the other day, and there was about 2 or 3 feet of snow. And then with subfreezing temperatures, it really is hard for people just to even walk a block from their house. People have to bundle up before they go anywhere, or they’ll get frostbite. And then we have the added layer of COVID-19. So it’s a challenge every day. The heater [on my truck] isn’t working, but I’m acclimated to the weather. It’s pretty warm right now. It’s 45 degrees Fahrenheit. It was 8 degrees yesterday. I’ve got a couple layers on, and everything is going good. We’re trying to work through the obstacles as they present themselves.
How are you finding the people who need help?
That’s the work of our digital organizers and social media campaigns. We are posting on Facebook and Instagram. Our digital organizers are also making calls and will notify me if there’s a specific voter that needs their ballot picked up. So today I have a digital organizer that lives way on the other side of the reservation 120 miles from where I am right now, who needs me to pick up a ballot for somebody. So I’ll go and pick up the ballot and deliver it to the county election office in Roosevelt County.
You’ve talked about those who don’t have access to transportation. But given that this is an all-mail election, it seems like it would be very difficult for those without addresses or post office boxes—nontraditional addresses are common on many reservations—to vote. Are you doing anything for them?
I haven’t specifically experienced that this election, because we just barely got our status as essential workers. But we do have a number of people who are homeless, and they’re living in some huts outside Wolf Point. So I’ll approach them and utilize my program on my phone. If they’re not registered to vote, I ask them to make it to the county election office and request an application to register to vote, like my cousin just did. My cousin here, she gets her mail sent to her dad’s house 8 miles from her. She lives in a pretty isolated community. Her husband works in housing and is across the reservation all day, and she doesn’t necessarily have transportation when he’s at work. So her dad takes her the mail, but he can choose to bring her mail or not to bring her mail—it’s up to him if he wants to be the mailman that day. So when my cousin went in to vote, they actually gave her a physical ballot.
What are you hearing from people in your community about this election?
This election is so polarized that there’s really not much indifference. I’ve had one person who’s fully against the electoral process and believes that it’s giving “the enemy” power over us. They’re trying to be revolutionary. He was kind of challenging me, like, “Hey, this isn’t the Indigenous way.” I’ll see one or two people that are really adamantly in opposition to the Democratic candidates and on the other side of the aisle, and that’s OK. I’m not going to use a lot of my time trying to change your mind; I’m more invested in getting your ballots into the election office. But for the most part, I see a lot of Native American support for the candidates that we’re endorsing. We endorsed [Democrat] Steve Bullock for United States Senate, [Democrat] Kathleen Williams for our sole House of Representative seat, and [Democrat] Mike Cooney for governor.
What do you think is the significance of this election?
This election is very important to me. I’m trying to do the best that I can to protect our people. We do have an agenda for specific bills in the state Legislature. There are separate things, like acts that have to do with the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Our local state Legislature seat, we have an Indigenous person that is going to fill that seat. We also have [Montana state legislator] Frank Smith opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, making sure that a foreign company doesn’t desecrate our burial sites. And we’re all very aware of the dangers of that pipeline to our land and our air.
We really need people involved in the electoral process. Even if it may feel like conformity, they need to participate because the people that we’re putting into office both on the state level and in a national level—we need to show support for them very visibly, so that when we need help, they’ll actually pick up the phone.
Is there anything else you want people to know?
[If you live in Montana], look on the secretary of state website and look up their voter registration status. If they go to Montana Native Vote, they can find specific ways to get out to vote and to contact the different regional organizers and digital organizers who are out in the field canvassing. They can reach them if they need their ballot picked up. If they need me to drive 90 miles to go pick up their ballot, I’ll do it.