Dems to Drop Voter Challenge Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Montana Democrats dropped their federal lawsuit Friday against Republicans who challenged the registrations of nearly 6,000 voters because they might have changed their address.

The Montana Republican Party withdrew those challenges earlier this week, after being stung by accusations it was trying to suppress the vote in seven Democratic-leaning counties. Democrats initially vowed to press on with the case, and a hearing was scheduled for next week before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula.

But after Secretary of State Brad Johnson filed court documents saying similar voter challenges should be rejected in the future, Democrats said they were dropping their lawsuit.

“This battle has been won in the favor of the plaintiffs and the voters of Montana,” said Caleb Weaver, a spokesman for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. “We feel we achieved the goals of the lawsuit and that there is no need to pursue this particular case at this time.”

Within hours, Republicans issued a statement claiming the lawsuit had been dropped because the law was on their side. Party spokesman Bridger Pierce said the challenges had been made “in good faith” and were not meant to disenfranchise voters as Democrats had alleged.

“Based on the facts and the law, the Democratic Party made the only decision it could,” Pierce said. “This issue at the heart of their lawsuit was moot, and there was no violation of federal law as alleged by the Democrats.”

On Wednesday, Molloy had rejected the Democrats’ request for an injunction but had scheduled a hearing on whether Montana registration laws run counter to federal law. In his order, the judge blasted GOP Executive Director Jake Eaton for his “mischief” in targeting Democratic voters through the challenges.

But Molloy also said it was the state — not the party — that risked violating voter registration laws, if election officials were to use the challenges to revoke or force changes to voter registrations.

The Republican challenges were based on a comparison of voter registration rolls and a U.S. Postal Service change of address database.

Under the National Voter Registration Act, such evidence is considered insufficient to challenge a person’s right to vote. State law does not expressly prohibit the use of change of address information, but state election officials are bound by the federal law.

Johnson had issued instructions to that effect to county elections officials on Oct. 3. After Judge Molloy later questioned whether Johnson’s instructions left room for interpretation, the secretary of state reinforced that position in court documents submitted Friday.

“To be absolutely clear, it is the secretary of state’s position that a voter challenge premised solely on a change-of-address form cannot be granted to remove a voter from the registry,” attorneys for the state wrote in a brief submitted by Johnson on Friday.