HELENA — With Montana’s primary elections just over a month away and school elections next week, there’s still legal uncertainty over exactly what will be required for voters.
Several new election laws, passed by the Montana Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte last year, are currently held up by court challenges. Now, it may fall to the Montana Supreme Court to decide whether those rules will be enforced in this year’s upcoming elections.
On Wednesday, Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office asked Supreme Court justices to stay a district court order that blocked two new regulations: one eliminating Election Day voter registration, and the other requiring voters using student IDs for identification to bring additional documents.
Plaintiffs – including the Montana Democratic Party, tribal advocates and youth-voting groups – challenged the laws as unconstitutional restrictions on voting. They specifically argued the requirements would disproportionately affect Native Americans and young voters.
Earlier this month, District Court Judge Michael Moses of Billings granted their request for a preliminary injunction to block enforcement of those laws until a final ruling on their constitutionality. Moses said his order would prevent possible “constitutional injury” to affected while the case is litigated.
Jacobsen’s office said in their request for a stay that election officials across the state have already been trained on the new laws, and they have been doing outreach to voters explaining the new requirements. They noted that municipal elections were successfully conducted last year with the laws in place, and they argued allowing a change so close to an election would create unnecessary confusion.
Moses rejected those arguments last week, in a ruling denying Jacobsen’s request to suspend the injunction. He argued election officials had two months before the primary at the time of his initial order and said the disruption would not outweigh the possible constitutional harm for voters impacted by the laws.
Now, it will likely be up to the Supreme Court to determine whether the injunction remains in place for the June election. There has been no immediate indication of when the court could respond to Jacobsen’s request.
Moses also enjoined two other election-related laws: one prohibiting paid collection of mail ballots and one stopping counties from issuing absentee ballots to 17-year-olds who will turn 18 before Election Day. However, Jacobsen is not asking for a stay on those provisions – meaning they will not be enforced in the June election, regardless of what action the Supreme Court takes.
A spokesperson for Jacobsen’s office told MTN they narrowed their appeal “because this will be the cleanest way to allow election officials to operate the election in the way they have been trained, considering we are the last minute.” They said Moses clarified his initial order to confirm some additional election security measures could remain in place, and that most counties in the state already do not send ballots out until a registered voter turns 18.
There will be notable differences this election cycle beyond the new election laws. This will also be the first statewide election since 2018 to be conducted with polling places. In 2020, elections were held entirely by mail during the pandemic.
In Lewis and Clark County, officials say they’ve had significant interest from people wanting to serve as election judges. Elections supervisor Connor Fitzpatrick said they need about 130 full-time judges to run the primary, and more than 250 people have expressed interest.
“I applaud that hands-on attitude,” he said.