Judge issues temporary injunction for four voting laws passed by Montana lawmakers in 2021

For now, college identification, ballot collection and same-day registration will continue

By: - April 6, 2022 7:53 pm

A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church on Election Day, November 6, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A Yellowstone County District Court judge has granted a preliminary injunction for four laws passed by the 2021 Legislature that he said likely harm different groups of voters. Lawmakers said they had passed the measures out of a concern for election integrity.

The injunctions come as Montana prepares to vote in a number of elections in 2022.

The ruling, issued by Judge Michael G. Moses, has temporarily suspended House Bill 176, House Bill 530, Senate Bill 169 and House Bill 506. Those bills and lawsuits are part of a nearly year-long process of lawsuits being filed and groups coming together to oppose the newly crafted legislation, some of which was nearly identical to bills struck down by another Yellowstone County judge in 2020.

Though a final judicial decision on the legality of the bills hasn’t been issued and Wednesday’s order simply stops the four bills from going into effect, the ruling pointed out that the state of Montana has failed to demonstrate why the more restrictive voting laws were necessary, and established that the laws would harm certain groups of voters.

For now, the injunction means that ballot collection by paid ballot collectors can continue, that counties may continue Election-Day – or same-day – voter registration, that use of college-issued identification will be acceptable, and that voters who will be 18 by Election Day may receive absentee ballots even before their 18th birthday.

“We will continue fighting until these laws are permanently prevented from restricting access to the ballot box,” said Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, one of the attorneys who represents the youth plaintiffs.

More than 10 different groups and four different legal challenges, all centering on voter restrictions and ballot access, have been consolidated into this case, which attorneys have argued unduly targets young voters and Native American voters.

“Today is a good day for the voters of Montana, and for the sanctity of the Montana Constitution. This order reaffirms the principle that the right to vote must be preserved for all voters, and that laws targeting Indigenous voters cannot be supported by flimsy and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud,” said American Civil Liberties Union Montana Legal Director Alex Rate, who was part of the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Republican legislators who supported the bills decried the ruling, saying it was more evidence of an activist judiciary.

“To block multiple well-crafted election integrity laws barely a month before ballots go out is judicial activism at its worst,” said Montana Senate President Mark Blasdel. “It’s no surprise that a liberal judge appointed by Democratic governors ruled in favor of his political allies instead of Montanans who support voter ID and secure elections.”

In his 58-page ruling, Moses determined that the court must use a strict scrutiny test for these laws, meaning that the state of Montana must show a compelling interest or need to rewrite laws that affect a constitutionally-protected right like voting. Furthermore, because of the Equal Protection Clause, the laws must not treat similarly-situated groups differently.

Moses consistently found that Montana lawmakers failed to prove that more and stricter election security was necessary in changing the law. In fact, he found that voter fraud and ballot interference were almost non-existent in the past 20 years, and that a generalized concern was not sufficient to pass measures that would likely turn away voters.

Laws suspended

One of the laws suspended, Senate Bill 169, would have required college students to provide another form of identification other than a college-issued card. Attorneys argued that this restriction unfairly targeted college students who may not have a Montana driver’s license or other forms of identification. Furthermore, Montana’s percentage of young adults who vote was statistically higher than many states, meaning the law may disproportionately affect them.

House Bill 176 eliminated same-day voter registration, which was used by more than 8,000 voters in 2018 and 2020. The law allows voters to register and vote on Election Day. Moses found no evidence of fraud or problems with the additional work during Election Day and said that making voters make multiple trips, sometimes dozens of miles each way in Montana’s rural counties, was burdensome without demonstrating a need for it.

In fact, in his ruling, he relied on testimony from Gallatin County, which pointed out that 17 voters who were otherwise eligible were turned away in 2021 because of the change in law.

Moses found that House Bill 530, which placed a restriction on ballot collection, could disproportionately affect Native American communities, which may lack mail service or transportation to get their ballots to the county.

Among the plaintiffs, Western Native Voice said in a news release that it has been assisting tribal communities by providing voting assistance across the seven reservations in Montana that depend on such services to participate in elections.

“Western Native Voice celebrates the granting of the preliminary injunction, and we will continue to hold our elected officials accountable especially when it comes to voting rights for our Native communities.  We look forward to a day when we can continue doing this important work without the added burdens on our right to vote,” said Western Native Voice Executive Director Ronnie Jo Horse in a statement.

In a section of the ruling addressing voter fraud, Moses said that more than 8 million ballots have been cast since 2002 and that “voter fraud … does not remotely present a problem for or threat to election security in Montana,” and “for the purposes of this preliminary injunction, the court  finds the same is true in this matter.”

The Daily Montanan reached out the Montana Attorney General’s Office for comment or whether it was planning to appeal the injunction, but officials there did not respond on Wednesday.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming.