In 2018, paid political operatives in North Carolina went door-to-door, enticing voters to hand over their unsealed absentee ballots. The operatives then altered the unfinished ballots to support Republican candidates and failed to return ballots that already supported Democratic candidates. This ballot fraud scheme threw the district’s election results into question and forced a Republican congressman-elect to step aside in favor of a new election with new candidates conducted months later.
In 2020, most Montanans will vote by mail, so protecting Montana’s elections from this kind of “ballot harvesting” scheme is critical. That’s why, in 2018 – on the same night North Carolinians were being cheated out of their right to a free and fair election – 64% of Montanans voted for the Ballot Interference Protection Act (BIPA), a common-sense law to protect our state from ballot harvesting schemes.
But this week, a Bullock-appointed judge blocked Montana from enforcing our ballot harvesting laws putting the security and integrity of Montana’s 2020 election results in grave danger.
Montana’s Ballot Interference Protection Act (BIPA) prohibits large-scale ballot harvesting, but still allows family members, neighbors, and caregivers to return ballots for voters who are unable to do so themselves. This flexibility was necessary in a rural state where mail service isn’t always consistent, particularly on Tribal Lands. But BIPA maintained accountability by requiring people who returned ballots for others to fill out a form listing their name, the names of the people whose ballots they are returning, and their relationship to the named voter.
Despite this flexibility, the ACLU challenged Montana’s law arguing it was an “illegal obstruction” that would prevent Native Americans from voting. And District Judge Jessica Fehr agreed with them, writing in her ruling that BIPA “fails to enhance the security of absentee voting” and “serves no legitimate purpose.” If Judge Fehr questions whether this law is necessary, she should talk to the voters in North Carolina who will never know what the will of the people was that Election Night.
With a stroke of her pen, a Bullock-appointed judge has overturned the will of the strong majority of Montanans who voted for BIPA, stopping a common-sense law that protects vulnerable Montanans from the type of ballot harvesting scheme that rocked North Carolina.
In an election year when out-of-state, dark money is expected to pour into our state, Judge Fehr has left Montanans and our elections vulnerable. If her ruling is upheld, we will have no shield to prevent politically motivated groups from going door-to-door to harvest ballots from Montana voters. And in a small state like ours, where important statewide races are decided by fewer than 10,000 votes, harvesting a few thousand of the “right” ballots could easily skew our elections.
Montanans voted for election integrity when they passed BIPA in 2018. The law’s flexibility allows trusted people to return ballots for loved ones who are unable to, but prohibits politically motivated groups from conducting ballot harvesting operations. Without this law, Montanans cannot trust the outcome of our 2020 elections.
Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse and Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus
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