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Montana judge temporarily blocks new election laws

| April 8, 2022 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge on Wednesday temporarily blocked four laws passed by the 2021 Legislature that the state Democratic Party, tribal organizations and youth groups argued were meant to make it more difficult for Native Americans, new voters, the elderly and those with disabilities to vote.

District Court Judge Michael Moses ruled the laws that eliminated election day voter registration, changed voter ID requirements for college students and banned the paid collection of voted ballots would not be in effect for the June primary election because it appears they “unconstitutionally burden the right to vote.”

Under the ruling, the laws passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature will remain blocked until the full case currently before Moses is decided.

Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said in a statement that the bills “were a blatant and cynical attack on Montanans’ constitutional right to vote, specifically impacting young voters, Native voters, elderly and disabled voters, and voters who have trouble getting to the polls.”

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen said she was going to appeal.

“Wednesday’s decision defies Montana’s common-sense approach to running our elections,” she said in a statement. “It’s impossible to undo the steps that have already been taken to implement these legislative changes, including direct voter communication, education, and outreach.”

Jacobsen had already made that argument to Moses, whose order said the plaintiffs were not asking for those steps to be undone. The plaintiffs, he wrote, were asking that the secretary be restrained from enforcing the new laws before they have governed a statewide election.

Moses also temporarily blocked a law that would not allow 17-year-olds who pre-register to vote to receive a ballot, through the mail or otherwise, until they turn 18, even if they would turn 18 on or before Election Day.

“To block multiple well-crafted election integrity laws barely a month before ballots go out is judicial activism at its worst," said Senate President Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell.

Jacobsen had requested the bills as Republicans around the country changed voting laws in the wake of the November 2020 election and claims by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that the election was stolen.

The state argued the new laws were needed to reduce the amount of work for election workers on Election Day, reduce lines at polling places, reduce delays in reporting election results and prevent election fraud.

However, some Republican lawmakers made it clear they were trying to prevent out-of-state college students from voting in Montana elections.

Morris noted that during debate on the student ID bill, House Speaker Wylie Galt said “basically, it makes that if you're a college student in Montana and you don't have a registration, a bank statement or a W-2, it makes me kind of wonder why you're voting in this election anyway. ... So this just clears it up that they have a little stake in the game."

A voter-approved law that made it illegal to turn in more than six voted absentee ballots was overturned in September 2020 by a state judge who ruled it exacerbated the barriers many rural Native Americans face in voting, which included difficulties in traveling to post offices and polling places.

In this year's case, the plaintiffs rebutted the state's interests in testimony from experts and election staff who said there has been no voter fraud in Montana pertaining to election day registration, ballot assistance or the use of student IDs as voter identification, Moses wrote.