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Montana district judge rules three election laws unconstitutional

Polling Place
Posted at 5:30 PM, Sep 30, 2022

HELENA — If a district court order stands, in Montana's 2022 election, people will be able to vote using a student ID as their main identification, register to vote on Election Day and receive compensation for ballot collection.

A judge in Billings has struck down three election laws passed by Republicans in the Montana Legislature last year, declaring they were unconstitutionally restrictive.

District Judge Michael Moses announced the ruling in a 199-page order Friday, after a two-week bench trial last month. He ordered the state not to enforce the laws, which would end Election Day voter registrations, ban compensation for ballot collection and require additional identification for people using student IDs to vote.

Plaintiffs – including four tribal governments, the Montana Democratic Party and Native and youth voting groups – sued Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen over the laws.

Moses said eliminating voter registration would disproportionately burden Native Americans and young voters, and that “a significant number of historically disenfranchised voters have come to rely upon it over the past 15 years.” He said the change wouldn’t advance legitimate state interest like election integrity or reducing administrative burdens.

The judge called the ballot collection provision “a solution in search of a problem,” saying Jacobsen’s office hadn’t shown evidence that Montana had issues of voter fraud or coercion linked to paid absentee-ballot collection efforts, or that the law would help. He said it would worsen unequal access to the polls for Native American voters and those with disabilities.

Moses said the restrictions on student IDs as voter identification didn’t unfairly burden the right to vote, but they did violate equal protection for young voters. He said the state hadn’t shown the law would improve voter confidence or reduce fraud, and argued it was “no accident that the Legislature passed SB 169 just months after Montana’s youngest voters turned out to vote at record rates.”

Plaintiffs celebrated the decision.

“This ruling reflects that access to the ballot box in Montana must remain free, fair, and straightforward,” said Kiersten Iwai, executive director with Forward Montana Foundation, in a statement.

Richie Melby, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State’s Office, said in a statement to MTN that they were “not going to let down the fight to make Montana elections the most secure AND accessible elections in the nation.”

Republican leaders in the Legislature sharply criticized the ruling.

"This disappointing decision is exactly what everyone knew was coming from Judge Moses, a liberal activist judge who has ruled in favor of his political allies every step of the way in every case before him," said Kyle Schmauch, a spokesperson for the majority party. "The Montana Constitution grants the legislature authority to write reasonable laws to ensure secure elections. If judges want to make policy, they should run for the legislature instead of serving as political activists on the bench."

Moses’ decision could now be appealed to the Montana Supreme Court.