HELENA – Montana voters must have their primary ballots in to their county election offices by 8 p.m. Tuesday in order for them to be counted, the Montana Supreme Court said Wednesday.
The justices blocked an order issued by a Billings judge last week that said ballots would be counted as long as they were postmarked on or before Election Day.
“I am pleased that the Montana Supreme Court maintained our long-standing ballot deadline of 8 p.m. on Election Day, especially since some counties are using prepaid ballot return envelopes that won’t be postmarked,” said Attorney General Tim Fox, who filed the motion Tuesday to overturn District Judge Donald Harris’ order on behalf of Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. “Ten days before an election is not an appropriate time to upend an important and widely known voting law.”
The instructions accompanying the ballots said in three places that they must be returned to election offices by 8 p.m. on June 2, the state argued.
Montana Democratic Party Chair Robyn Driscoll of Billings, the Montana Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee challenged both the mailed ballot deadline and the state’s Ballot Interference Prevention Act in March. They filed for the injunction in April, a week before the ballots were to be mailed.
Judge Harris said last Friday the disparity and inconsistency in the length of time it takes to deliver a mailed ballot significantly burdens absentee voters because they vote a week before the election, have less time and information to decide how to vote, and even if they vote a week early, there’s no guarantee their ballot will be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service in time for it to be counted.
The justices said they were staying Harris’ order to maintain the status quo while the legal issues are considered. All of Montana’s counties decided to hold the primary election by mail to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“We conclude that there is good cause to maintain the election-day deadline for this primary election in order to avoid voter confusion and disruption of election administration,” the justices wrote.
The Montana Supreme Court said it would receive briefs and have a ruling in advance of the preparations for November’s general election.
“We will continue to fight to ensure Montanans can cast their ballots and trust they will be counted,” Driscoll said in a statement. “The ruling today applies to the June 2 primary and we are confident the Montana Supreme Court will affirm the District Court ruling and prevent Montanans from being disenfranchised in November and future elections.”
Harris last week also granted a preliminary injunction sought by the Democrats against enforcement of a voter-approved referendum called the Ballot Interference Protection Act, which limits one person to turning in a maximum of six absentee ballots and asks that they fill out a form saying whose ballots they are returning.
The Democrats argued the elimination of secure ballot return boxes would lead to social distancing issues for people returning ballots in person.
The state did not challenge that injunction.