Trial starts in challenge to new Montana voting laws
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Native Americans who must travel long distances to election offices and cope with unreliable and infrequent mail delivery are further disenfranchised under election laws approved last year, a lawyer said Monday during opening statements in a trial challenging the laws’ constitutionality.
Jacqueline De León, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, said she would present evidence that the laws ending Election Day voter registration in Montana and banning the paid collection of voted ballots put unreasonable barriers on Native Americans who already face other economic and logistical obstacles.
The new laws were passed by the Legislature in 2021 and a similar ballot collection law was declared unconstitutional by two state judges in 2020.
“We should not have to bring this case again. But we will certainly prove, once again, that Native Americans are disproportionately and unfairly impacted,” by the two bills, De León said.
The trial that began Monday in Billings also challenges a law that requires additional proof of residency besides student IDs for college students to register and vote. The trial before District Court Judge Michael Moses is scheduled to last 10 days.
Moses in April temporarily blocked the enforcement of the laws. But the Montana Supreme Court allowed two of the laws to remain in effect for the June 7 primary — ending voter registration at noon the day before the election and requiring proof of residency for those using student IDs to register and vote.
Rylee Somers-Flanagan, representing youth voting organizations, said she would offer proof that voters under age 34 use Election Day registration at twice the rate of older Montana residents and that they are most likely to lack traditional forms of voter identification.
Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen requested the bills as Republicans around the country changed voting laws in the wake of the November 2020 election and false claims by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that the election was stolen.
Attorneys representing the state argued the new laws were needed to prevent election fraud, uphold voter confidence in elections and place a minimal burden on voters.
While considering the legislation, some Republican lawmakers made it clear they were trying to make it more difficult for college students to vote.
During debate on the student ID bill, Republican Rep. Jedediah Hinkle of Belgrade cited an election night in Gallatin County where a nonprofit group “not on our side of the aisle” bused students to the polls all day. Bozeman, the county seat of Gallatin County, is home to Montana State University, with an enrollment of more than 17,000 undergraduate and graduate students.
By 11:30 p.m., Hinkle said, the line of voters extended from the second floor of the courthouse outside and around the block, stressing workers in the election department.
“The evidence will show that individuals that come to Montana from other states for college can be misled to believe that they can vote in Montana elections even if they do not consider Montana their home state,” Leonard Smith, attorney for the state, said in his opening statement.
Youth voter turnout in Montana — the number of voters under age 30 who cast ballots — increased from 18% in 2014 to 56% in 2020, said Flanagan’s Upper Seven Law, which is representing Montana Youth Action and other groups challenging the new laws affecting young voters.
During the case’s hearing about the temporary injunction, the plaintiffs argued there has been no voter fraud in Montana pertaining to Election Day day registration, assistance returning ballots or the use of student IDs as voter identification.