‘Cocktail of voter suppression’: Montana youth groups challenge new voting laws

The groups say the laws unconstitutionally restrict voting access for Montana’s youth

By: - September 12, 2021 9:44 am

A voting sign in California (Photo by Tom Arthur/Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Three youth groups filed a lawsuit on Thursday challenging three recently passed laws they say restrict young Montanans’ access to voting by infringing on voting rights and equal protections guaranteed in the state constitution.

The lawsuit, filed in Yellowstone County District Court, calls Senate Bill 169, House Bill 506 and House Bill 176 a “cocktail of voter suppression measures that land heavily on the young.”

The bills narrow voter identification requirements, respectively to require another form of identification when using a student ID to vote in person, end same-day voter registration and bar ballots from being mailed to voters before their 18th birthday, among a slew of other restrictions.

Forward Montana Foundation, Montana Public Interest Research Group and Montana Youth Action are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit — all three are youth civic engagement groups. Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is the only listed defendant on the lawsuit.

“Each of these laws unconstitutionally burdens Montanans’ fundamental right to vote, both subverting the will of Montana voters and upending norms that Montana voters have come to rely on — for no reason, let alone a compelling one,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says the laws were passed for “no reason other than the professed bogeyman of voter fraud, for which legislators did not and could not produce evidence.”

Republican lawmakers and supporters of the bills argued they are necessary to increase election integrity in the state. Pushing back on that point, the groups point to a 2020 lawsuit against the state by former President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign. In that case, the judge said, “there is no record of election fraud in Montana’s recent history.”

In response to comment on existing lawsuits over the same election laws, Jacbosen’s office said, “The voters of Montana spoke when they elected a Secretary of State that promised improved election integrity with voter ID and voter-registration deadlines, and we will work hard to defend those measures.”

Additionally, the lawsuit says the new legislation disproportionately targets young voters that do not have well-developed voting habits or experience and will create confusion leading to a decrease in voter turnout. The lawsuit points out that from 2014 to 2020, the percent of 18-29 year-olds who voted rose from 18 percent to 56 percent.

“Young Montanans are engaged and eager to participate in civic life. But when restrictions are placed on youth, the hurdles imposed make it incredibly difficult for us to make our voices heard,” said Scout McMahon, initiatives chair of Montana Youth Action.

Thursday’s lawsuit is one of three filed in Yellowstone County District Court challenging a handful of recently passed election laws. SB169 and HB176, along with House Bill 530, which bars people from collecting and submitting other people’s ballots if they are being paid to do so, are the subjects of a lawsuit from the state’s Democratic party alleging they unfairly disenfranchise young voters, the elderly, Native Americans and the disabled. A collection of Montana tribes and nonprofits are also challenging the constitutionally of HB176 and 530.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .