HELENA – A law that said only Montana residents can gather signatures to qualify initiatives for the state ballot is unconstitutional, a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.
The judges found that the residency requirement for signature gatherers is too severe a burden on the exercise of free speech rights and would limit the number of people available to gather signatures.
However, the three-judge panel upheld another part of the law that bans signature-gatherers from being paid based on the number of signatures they collect in an effort to reduce the incentive to forge signatures or commit fraud.
The ruling sends the case back to U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell in Helena, who had upheld the ban against using out-of-state signature gatherers and the pay-per-signature ban.
The appeals court ruling came in a recent challenge to a 2007 law passed after the signature-gathering process for three ballot initiatives in 2006 in Montana was found to have been “permeated by a pervasive and general pattern and practice of fraud,” court records said.
The initiatives, including one to limit the state’s taxing and spending authority, were disqualified from the ballot after court testimony found the signature gatherers had falsely attested to gathering signatures that they did not gather themselves and deceived residents into unknowingly signing petitions for more than one initiative, court records said.
The supporters of the 2006 initiatives relied primarily on out-of-state signature gatherers paid on a per-signature basis, court records said.
Montana is one of six states that ban paying petition circulators on a per-signature basis, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other states are: Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming.
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