A Yellowstone County district court judge on Tuesday temporarily blocked four new Republican-backed election laws that a coalition of Native American tribes, voting-rights groups and Democrats believe unconstitutionally restrict Montanans’ voting rights.
Judge Michael Moses granted a preliminary injunction to the coalition of plaintiffs, putting on hold controversial legislation that added new voter identification restrictions and ended Montana’s practice of allowing residents to register and vote on Election Day. Two other laws were also blocked, which limit third-party ballot collection and prevent ballots from being sent out to new voters in advance of their 18th birthdays.
Moses’ ruling applies in three different cases challenging the new election laws that were consolidated last year. It prevents Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, the sole defendant in all three cases, from enforcing the laws until the court makes a final decision on their constitutionality.
Members of the coalition challenging the voting laws hailed Moses’s decision Wednesday, including Ronnie Jo Horse, the executive director of Western Native Voice.
“We will continue to hold our elected officials accountable, especially when it comes to voting rights for our Native communities,” Horse stated in a press release. “We look forward to a day when we can continue doing this important work without the added burdens on our right to vote.”
In an emailed statement on Wednesday, Jacobsen vowed to “immediately appeal” the decision.
“Wednesday’s decision defies Montana’s common-sense approach to running our elections,” Jacobsen said. “It’s impossible to undo the steps that have already been taken to implement these legislative changes, including direct voter communication, education and outreach.”
Plaintiffs have argued that the new laws are designed to deter certain groups of voters from exercising their right to vote, while Republicans have argued that the measures were necessary to strengthen Montana’s election security.
Moses found that each of the four laws potentially creates an unconstitutional burden on the plaintiffs’ right to vote, as well as their right to equal protection.
The Montana Democratic Party last year challenged three of the laws: Senate Bill 169, which added new restrictions to the state’s voter ID requirements; House Bill 176, which ended Election Day voter registration; and House Bill 530, which prohibits people from collecting and submitting other people’s voted ballots if they are receiving any financial compensation for doing so.
SB 169 removed student photo IDs from the state’s list of acceptable photo identification at the polls. Under the Legislature’s changes, those photo IDs would need to be paired with another form of official documentation, like bank statements, tax documents or vehicle registrations.
Moses wrote, citing plaintiffs’ testimony describing the new hoops that out-of-state and transgender students will have to jump through under the new law.
“These additional costs to voting are unique to young voters given their mobility and the fact that they are less likely to possess the primary forms of ID and the forms that must be presented in addition to the student ID,” he wrote in his order.
The Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote separately sued to overturn HB 176 and HB 530. They are being represented by the Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Moses sided with the plaintiffs’ arguments that HB 176 may unconstitutionally burden the right to vote by ending voter registration on Election Day. While Jacobsen’s office presented evidence from some election officials that doing so would reduce extra work for them on Election Day, Moses noted that the plaintiffs also provided testimony from election staff in support of keeping registration open through the last day of elections.
He also found that HB 530, placing restrictions on ballot-collection practices in Montana, “burdens the voters who rely on organized absentee ballot assistance,” specifically citing testimony that Native American voters often have to travel farther to vote in person, and have more difficulties with on-reservation mail delivery.
“It is still possible that the fundamental right to vote can be infringed by legislation affecting that right through limiting the voting options available to Montanans,” Moses wrote.
And three groups representing young Montanans — Montana Youth Action, the Forward Montana Foundation and the Montana Public Interest Research Group — also filed suit to challenge SB 169, HB 176 and House Bill 506. The latter measure prevents anyone who turns 18 before Election Day from getting a ballot before their birthday.
The youth groups alleged that newly eligible voters turning 18 in the two weeks before Election Day would be unable to access mail-in ballots, which they may need for reasons including travel, going to school out of state, illness or a disability.
Rejecting Jacobsen’s argument that only “a small sliver of potential voters” would be affected, Moses wrote that “these voters previously had a voting avenue open to them that has now been closed.” He noted that the youth groups showed that an estimated 763 new voters would face “confusion and difficulty when voting” due to the law.
Republicans in Montana have argued for tightening up the state’s voting laws by citing waning public confidence in elections. But Moses wrote that Jacobsen’s rationale for the laws under review was rebutted by expert testimony from plaintiffs that voter fraud in Montana is “vanishingly rare” and hasn’t been attributed to Election Day registration, ballot collection or the use of student ID as voter identification.
He also noted that Jacobsen had presented no evidence of voter fraud in Montana related to student IDs or ballot collection efforts.
One of Montana’s top two Republican lawmakers blasted Moses’s decision as “judicial activism at its worst.”
“It’s no surprise that a liberal judge appointed by Democratic governors ruled in favor of his political allies instead of Montanans who support voter ID and secure elections,” Senate President Mark Blasdel said in an emailed statement.
But Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, an attorney representing the coalition of youth groups, cast the preliminary injunctions as “a victory for young voters and for all Montanans.”
“We will continue fighting until these laws are permanently prevented from restricting access to the ballot box,” she said.
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