Montana’s Supreme Court Rules Voting Reform Laws Are Unconstitutional

Montana’s Supreme Court Rules Voting Reform Laws Are Unconstitutional
An election judge holds "I Voted" stickers while collecting drive-thru ballots outside the Highland Recreation Center in Denver, Colo., on March 5, 2024. (Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)

Montana’s Supreme Court on March 27 struck down four major voting reform laws passed by the state’s Legislature in 2021 after ruling they are unconstitutional.

In a sweeping 4-3 decision (pdf), the court reaffirmed a 2022 lower court ruling that found the four bills are unconstitutional and cannot be enforced.

The ruling marked a victory for the Montana Democratic Party, along with various youth and Native American-focused organizations, who had filed a lawsuit against Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen over the laws: House Bill 176, House Bill 530House Bill 506, and Senate Bill 169.

The four measures eliminated election day registration, which allowed residents to register to vote on the day of elections or by using “same-day registration,” and banned the use of ballot collectors who receive any “pecuniary benefit,” as part of Republican-led efforts to bolster election integrity and prevent possible corruption.

The bills also banned individuals under 18 from receiving an election ballot, even if they were to turn 18 on election day, and eliminated the use of university-issued IDs for voter verification at polling places.

Plaintiffs, including Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote, the Blackfeet Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, had argued in their 2021 lawsuit that the bills disproportionately impact young voters, as well as Native American voters and those with disabilities.

Montana’s  Supreme Court struck down all four of the laws, finding some of them disproportionately and unconstitutionally burdened the voting rights of Native Americans while others were simply unreasonable.

Court Finds Laws Are Unconstitutional

In its ruling, the court said it found the law targeting ballot-collection services “takes away the only option to vote for a significant number of Native Americans living on reservations” and “impermissibly interferes with the right to vote.”

Meanwhile, the elimination of election day registration is unconstitutional, the court found.

“The record shows that more than 70,000 Montanans have utilized election day registration to vote since 2005 and that many electors would be disenfranchised without the availability of election day registration,” the court said. “The Secretary argues that these 70,000 Montanans will simply conform to the new law and register at another time. But this ignores voluminous record evidence that shows that a vast majority of these Montanans will in fact be disenfranchised.”

Excluding student identification from the list of acceptable photo IDs imposes a burden on student voting, the court said, while the distinction between qualified voters who turn 18 shortly before an election and those who do not is “arbitrary” meaning that measure is “not reasonable,” according to the court.

Democrats welcomed the ruling.

‘Tremendous Victory for Democracy’

“Today’s decision is a tremendous victory for democracy, Native voters, and young people across the state of Montana,” Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, said in a statement. “While Republican politicians continue to attack voting rights and our protected freedoms, their voter suppression efforts failed and were struck down as unconstitutional.”

Elsewhere, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana, which represented some of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, called the ruling a “great victory” for their clients and Native Americans in Montana.

“Once again, courts have struck down the Montana Legislature’s attempts to unconstitutionally burden the constitutional rights of Native Americans across the state,” said Jonathan Topaz, staff attorney at the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “We will continue to fight for Native American voters in Montana and across the country to preserve their fundamental, constitutional right to vote.”

NTD Photo
A voter casts his ballot in a polling station at Hellgate Elementary School in Missoula, Mont., on May 25, 2017. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

In a nearly 60-page dissenting opinion, Justices Dirk Sandefur and Jim Rice took aim at their fellow justices.

“The heretofore novel idea that has now been sold to this court that legislative acts, and thus the alleged ulterior motives of the Legislature, can now be put on trial requiring evidentiary proof upon every constitutional challenge is, frankly, ludicrous and a serious affront to the delicate balance of constitutional separation of powers which our precious form of distributed-powers government so critically depends,” the pair wrote.

In a separate statement to The Hill, the Montana Secretary of State’s Office said the secretary is “devested by the gross injustice” and “assures Montanans that her committee to reasonable election integrity will not waver.”

“State and county election officials have been punched in the gut. Well-funded groups deceived the court and the media in a sad way,” her office said.

From The Epoch Times

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