Montana Supreme Court rules four major election law reform bills are unconstitutional

 March 28, 2024

In 2021, the Republican-led Montana Legislature passed several election law reform bills that were subsequently challenged by lawsuits from Democrats and Native American groups, with four of those new reform laws being ruled unconstitutional by a district court judge in 2022.

Montana's Republican Secretary of State appealed the lower court's ruling, but the Montana Supreme Court just affirmed that the district court was correct in declaring the challenged election reform laws as unconstitutional, The Hill reported.

Court strikes bans on absentee ballots for minors and same-day voter registration

Of the four challenged election reform laws, according to the Montana Supreme Court's 125-page ruling on Wednesday, one in particular was swiftly dispensed as unconstitutional via a summary judgment from the district court judge before the trial even began.

HB 506 changed existing law to now prohibit the provision of an absentee ballot to a minor who would turn 18 and become eligible to vote before an election day, an alteration that the high court agreed "interfered with the fundamental right to vote" of otherwise eligible voters.

Also challenged was HB 176, which eliminated same-day voter registration and moved the registration deadline up to noon of the day before an election day, which the courts determined violated the right to vote and equal protection under the U.S. and state constitutions.

The Supreme Court further noted that "Election day registration has become wildly popular, with over 70,000 Montanans utilizing it since 2006," as well as that "In a 2014 referendum, Montana voters rejected eliminating election day registration by a 14-point margin."

Laws to prohibit ballot harvesting and strengthen voter ID struck down

The Hill reported that the Democratic and Native American plaintiff groups also challenged as unconstitutional a section of HB 530 that outlawed the paid collection and submission of ballots by a third-party individual or group, also known as ballot harvesting.

However, the courts found that the provision violated "the right to vote, equal protection, freedom of speech, due process," and was "an improper delegation of legislative power." The courts further observed the existence of "evidence that many groups, including Native Americans, people with disabilities, and other voters, rely on organized groups to help them deliver their voted ballots to election officials."

Finally, there was SB 169, which made changes to Montana's voter ID law and demoted student IDs from a "primary" to a "secondary" form of identification, meaning some additional proof that voters "are who they say they are" would still be required before casting a ballot -- a change that was deemed an unconstitutional violation of equal protection rights.

Secretary of State "devastated" by Supreme Court's ruling

According to The Hill, Montana's Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who was the sole defendant in the consolidated lawsuits brought by Democratic and Native American groups, asserted in a statement that "Well-funded groups deceived the court and the media in a sad way."

Through a spokesperson, Jacobsen's office told the Montana Free Press in a statement, "The secretary is devastated by this decision but assures Montanans that her commitment to election integrity will not waver by this narrow adoption of judicial activism that is certain to fall on the wrong side of history."

"State and county election officials have been punched in the gut," the spokesperson added on the secretary's behalf.

A notable dissent from the majority's decisions

The Free Press reported that while all of the Montana Supreme Court justices concurred on the unconstitutionality of the law that disallowed absentee ballots for minors who would turn 18 before election day, there were some dissents from the majority's judgment on the unconstitutionality of the other three laws, especially from Justice Dirk Sandefur.

At one point in his lengthy dissent, Sandefur wrote, "In an unprecedented exercise of unrestrained judicial power overriding public policy determinations made by the Legislature in the exercise of its constitutional discretion, however ill-advised to some, the majority today strikes down three distinct legislative enactments on the most dubiously transparent of constitutional grounds."

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