HELENA — In the back-and-forth court battle over Montana mail ballot election deadlines, the Montana Supreme Court has said the current state law will be in force for the general election — mailed ballots must be received by county offices by 8 p.m. on Election Day to be counted.
Tuesday’s ruling was the second time in this election cycle the Montana Supreme Court blocked a lower court order that would have allowed ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by the following Monday to be counted.
Ballot deadlines are an issue in several states where Democrats are seeking more time to count the expected higher number of ballots that will be returned by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Republican lawmakers in Pennsylvania asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to put a hold on a ruling that extended the deadline to receive and count mailed-in ballots. On Tuesday, a federal appeals court upheld a six-day extension for counting ballots in Wisconsin.
In Montana, justices said the ballots and instructions for November’s general election have already been printed and some have been mailed. The instructions notify voters three times that ballots returned by mail must be received by county election offices by 8 p.m. on Election Day.
District Judge Donald Harris last Friday extended the mail ballot deadline, citing inconsistent mail delivery times and the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is leading more people to vote by mail.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton asked the Montana Supreme Court on Monday to block Harris’ order. The justices agreed that Harris’ order “disrupts the status quo, is likely to cause voter confusion and interferes with the ability of the state to administer an orderly general election process already underway.”
The Supreme Court also blocked an order by Harrison that would have given voters until Nov. 12 to resolve questions about ballots returned by mail, such as a missing or mismatched signature.
Also Tuesday, the justices upheld two lower court orders that declared unconstitutional a law that restricted third-party collection of voted ballots. The voter-passed Ballot Interference Protection Act was challenged by the Democratic Party and by Native American groups who said it made it more difficult for low-income and rural Montanans to vote.
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