Indianz.Com > News > Montana Free Press: Native voters battle ballot restrictions in court
Yellowstone County Courthouse in Montana
A trial over Native voting rights opened in the Yellowstone County Courthouse in Billings, Montana, on August 15, 2022. Photo: Sara goth
Court strikes down new ballot distribution law
According to a Yellowstone County judge, the Legislature’s restriction on ballot distribution to young voters violates the Montana Constitution.
Tuesday, August 16, 2022
Montana Free Press

A district judge in Yellowstone County last month struck down new restrictions on ballot distribution in Montana, declaring the law a violation of the state’s Constitution.

The order from Judge Michael Moses emerged from an ongoing consolidated lawsuit against the secretary of state’s office challenging four election administration laws passed by the Montana Legislature in 2021. One of those laws — House Bill 506 — barred county election officials from distributing ballots to minors who would turn 18 during the month leading up to Election Day. Moses’ ruling removes the HB 506 question from the case, which is otherwise scheduled for trial August 15.

“Young people’s participation in democracy is essential,” said Kiersten Iwai, executive director of the nonprofit Forward Montana Foundation, in an emailed statement Wednesday. “Today, the court affirmed what we already knew: restricting access to the ballot is an obvious wrong.”

Court Order: Western Native Voice v. Jacobsen [PDF]

The Forward Montana Foundation is one of the plaintiffs in the consolidated lawsuit. Other plaintiffs include the University of Montana-based Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG), Montana Youth Action, the Indigenous rights nonprofit Western Native Voice, and the Montana Democratic Party.

Last month’s pretrial resolution of the HB 506 challenge was the result of dueling requests by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and the plaintiffs for summary judgment. Jacobsen’s legal team had argued that the right to vote under the Montana Constitution does not extend to absentee voting — the primary avenue by which minors would receive a ballot ahead of an election — and that HB 506 is necessary to ensure that only qualified voters receive mail-in ballots. The Forward Montana Foundation, MontPIRG and Montana Youth Action countered that the law unfairly singles out a subset of voters and violates their constitutional right to vote. Moses agreed with the plaintiffs.

“HB 506 needlessly forces one subgroup of the electorate to vote in person and impermissibly denies this subgroup access to an avenue of voting that all others in the electorate can avail themselves of,” Moses wrote in his order.

The secretary of state’s office, which has the option to appeal Moses’ ruling on HB 506 to the Montana Supreme Court, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

With HB 506 struck down, three more election administration laws remain for Moses to consider: House Bill 176, which ended Election Day voter registration; Senate Bill 169, which implemented new photo identification requirements for people registering to vote and voting at the polls; and House Bill 530, which outlawed paid ballot collection in Montana. Moses issued a preliminary injunction blocking all four laws in April.

However, the Montana Supreme Court reinstated HB 176 and SB 169 ahead of the June 7 primary election in response to an appeal from Jacobsen specific to those two laws. HB 530 remains blocked heading into next month’s trial.

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana’s School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy’s abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking news stories and columns for a variety of publications including the Pacific Northwest Inlander, Mountain Outlaw Magazine, Kaiser Health News and the Montana Free Press. Sakariassen took a full time position as Montana Free Press’ education reporter in January 2021, covering K-12 and higher education as well as state policy developments impacting voting rights and health care.

Note: This story originally appeared on Montana Free Press. It is published under a Creative Commons license.