Lawsuit Argues New Montana Law Suppresses Student Vote

The legal challenge is one of several targeting a Republican-passed legislative measure

By IRIS SAMUELS Associated Press/Report for America

HELENA — A lawsuit filed Tuesday is challenging a new Montana law banning voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in certain areas of college campuses.

The lawsuit filed by the Montana Democratic Party, Montanans for Tester, and University of Montana student Macee Patritti, is one of several challenging the law passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature earlier this year. The plaintiffs argue the law is suppressing the vote of young people who typically favor Democratic candidates.

The law prohibits political committees including student organizations from conducting voter registration drives and other political activities inside certain high-traffic public university spaces including residence halls, dining facilities and athletic facilities.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula argues that the law contained in Senate Bill 319 “imposes arbitrary, vague, and onerous restrictions on the rights of college students” to participate fully in the political process.

Montanans for Tester, the political campaign committee for Democratic U.S. Senator Jon Tester, argues in the court filing that the law could inhibit efforts to reelect Tester to the U.S. Senate by suppressing access to young voters who tend to support Democratic candidates.

According to the lawsuit, Montanans for Tester along with the Montana Democratic Party registered over 3,000 new voters on college campuses by focusing on high traffic areas such as dorms and dining halls prior to the 2018 election.

Patritti, a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Montana registered students to vote at the Montana Technological University in Butte as an intern with the Montana Democratic Party ahead of the 2020 election, according to the court filing. The plaintiffs argue that her First Amendment rights to political expression would be curtailed under the new law, which would prohibit such activities.

The lawsuit names Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, a Republican, and Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan as defendants in the lawsuit, and asks the court to ban them from enforcing the law. Jacobsen and Mangan did not immediately respond requests for comment on the lawsuit.

Parts of the law were already temporarily blocked in June by a district court judge in Helena, while another legal challenge is underway from Forward Montana, a group dedicated to electing progressive candidates, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and attorney Gary Zadick.

Another lawsuit filed earlier this year by university faculty, students and others is also challenging the law.

The bill that led to the law was among several passed during the recent legislative session that appeared aimed at making it more difficult for college students to vote.

Montana’s 2021 Legislature also passed a bill to end Election Day voter registration and to require more than just student identifications for college students to register to vote or vote.

Republican lawmakers who supported the measure in the bill have said it would protect students from being “exploited” for political causes.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.