Judge takes testimony in lawsuit challenging four Montana election laws

Polling Place
Posted at 7:17 PM, Jul 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-11 21:17:13-04

HELENA — A judge in Billings heard extensive testimony Monday on an ongoing lawsuit challenging four election laws passed by the Montana Legislature in 2021.

District Judge Michael Moses held a hearing, considering a motion by Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to immediately allow the laws to go into effect. The four bills at issue are:

  • House Bill 176, which eliminated Election Day voter registration.
  • Senate Bill 169, which required voters using student IDs for identification to bring additional documents.
  • House Bill 530, which directed the Secretary of State to make an administrative rule prohibiting people from being paid to collect absentee ballots.
  • House Bill 506, which prohibited sending a ballot to someone younger than 18 who will turn 18 before an election.

A wide variety of organizations, including the Montana Democratic Party, tribal governments and advocacy groups, and youth-voting groups, have filed suit, claiming the laws are unconstitutional. All of the challenges were consolidated into a single case.

Attorneys representing Jacobsen argued Monday that the Legislature had broad discretion under the Montana Constitution to set election law. They said the bills were all “narrowly tailored” and lawmakers could point to legitimate state interests for implementing them – like the administrative burden of handling Election Day registration. They asked the court to use a “balancing test” when weighing those state interests against the impact on voters.

“The framers emphasized the Legislature must have flexibility with respect to Montana election laws,” said John Semmens, an attorney with the firm Crowley Fleck, representing the Secretary of State’s Office. “The framers intentionally gave the Legislature flexibility; the plaintiffs prefer rigidity.”

But the plaintiffs’ attorneys said each of the laws put an undue burden on the right to vote, especially for Native Americans and young voters. They argued the court should apply “strict scrutiny,” requiring the state to make a stronger case for why they are necessary. The plaintiffs want to see the issue go to trial, where they plan to make the case that the state can’t point to strong evidence justifying the need for the bills.

“We’re asking the court to do what it always does: take a look at the law that was enacted pursuant to the Legislature’s constitutional authority and determine whether it passes constitutional muster,” said Alex Rate, representing groups like Western Native Voice.

During the hearing, Moses – who issued an injunction to temporarily block the bills earlier this year – said the laws did add some burdens to voters, and he asked Jacobsen’s lawyers several times what evidence they would point to show why they were necessary.

“What’s the rationale?” he said. “Even if it’s reasonable, what is it, and what are the factual circumstances and the evidence to support that? That’s all I’m looking for.”

The state argued the Legislature has discretion to make these policy changes without an extensive evidence record.

Moses took no immediate action on the motion during Monday’s hearing.

HB 176 and SB 169 are currently in effect, after the Montana Supreme Court allowed them to be used during the June primary election. HB 530 and HB 506 are still on hold because of Moses’ injunction.