Judge Hears Arguments in Challenges Over New Election Laws

The Montana Democratic Party, Montana Native Vote and youth voting groups are challenging the laws

By Associated Press
A voter drops a ballot into a collection box at the Flathead County Elections Department on Oct. 22, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

HELENA – Four laws the Republican majority in the 2021 Montana Legislature said they passed to make elections more secure actually enacted barriers that make it more difficult for some residents to exercise their constitutional right to vote, attorneys argued Thursday in seeking to block and eventually overturn the laws.

The Montana Democratic Party, Montana Native Vote and youth voting groups are challenging laws that ended election day voter registration, banned paid ballot collection and require additional identifying information from those who use a student ID to register and vote.

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen had requested the bills as Republicans around the country changed voting laws in the wake of the November 2020 election and claims by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that the election was stolen.

Attorney Riley Somers-Flanagan, representing the youth groups, said the state’s argument that the laws were needed to increase voter confidence involved manufacturing a public issue, spreading false information and then claiming it’s public opinion. The effort, she said, “is not only disingenuous, it’s genuinely nefarious.”

The state has an interest in protecting the integrity and reliability of the electoral process, attorneys for Jacobsen said.

The Montana groups are asking District Judge Michael Moses in Billings to grant a preliminary injunction to block the new election laws while the case is decided. Montana’s next election is the June primary.

The law ending voter registration on noon the Monday before an election makes it harder for Native Americans, rural residents, low-income residents, working families and those with disabilities to register and vote and will thus reduce voter turnout, attorneys for the plaintiffs argued.

Dale Schowengerdt, an outside attorney for the state, countered that people can register and vote on the same day in the month prior to the election. Montana’s Constitution gave the Legislature the discretion to enact election day voter registration, he noted.

A new law to ban paid ballot collecting is similar to a voter-enacted law that restricted people from collecting more than six absentee ballots and turning them in at county election offices, attorneys argued. The Ballot Interference Prevention Act was overturned prior to the 2020 election after District Court Judge Jessica Fehr found it exacerbated the barriers many rural Native Americans face in voting.

The same arguments that led to overturning BIPA apply to the ban on paid ballot collecting, attorney Alex Rate for the ACLU of Montana said.

The 2021 Montana Legislature also changed the voter ID law to say college students could no longer use just their student ID to register and vote and needed some other proof of residence, such as a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or other government document that shows their name and current address.

The law clearly targets young voters, Somers-Flanagan said.

Having a voter ID law in place increases voter confidence in elections, Schowengerdt said, adding that plaintiffs have no evidence to show the law was intended to discriminate against young voters.

Another law being challenged applies to distributing ballots to people who would turn 18 or gain Montana residency in the month prior to an election. While would-be voters are allowed to pre-register to vote if they will be eligible to vote on Election Day, the law states they cannot receive a ballot and vote until they are legally eligible.

Moses said he would take the arguments under advisement. He did not say when he would issue a ruling.

He earlier denied a motion by Jacobsen to dismiss the case.