Montana law preventing absentee ballot gathering overturned

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana judge on Friday struck down a voter-enacted law that restricted third-party collection of absentee ballots after several Native American groups argued they rely on ballot collection efforts to vote.

The Ballot Interference Prevention Act exacerbated the barriers many rural Native Americans face in voting, which include difficulties in traveling to post offices and polling places, and is unconstitutional, District Judge Jessica Fehr ruled. The law is known as BIPA.

“Indigenous people have historically been and continue to be disenfranchised, and BIPA was yet another barrier standing in the way of Indigenous people exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Alex Rate, legal director for the ACLU of Montana, said in a statement after Fehr issued the ruling.

Rate added: “Ballot collection efforts are an important way to get out the vote on rural reservations, and with this ruling those efforts can proceed.”

The law said caregivers and family members who turn in someone else’s ballot are asked to sign a registry. The law also limited each person to collecting six ballots.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund challenged the law in March and were granted a restraining order to block its enforcement during the June primary election.

After hearing arguments earlier this month, Fehr overturned the law.

“This case and the facts presented at trial tum a spot light to our fellow citizens that still live below the poverty line with limits to health care, government services, mail services and election offices — those citizens are the Native Americans that reside on reservations within Montana’s borders,” Fehr wrote.

She added that the costs associated with the law “are simply too high and too burdensome to remain the law of the State of Montana.”

Many rural tribal communities work with get-out-the-vote organizers — such as the Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote groups — who collect ballots and turn them in to election offices for voters who might otherwise have socio-economic barriers to voting, the complaint argued.

Rural Native Americans may not have home mail service and also have difficulty getting to polling sites due to limited hours, unreliable roads, lack of access to vehicles and limited money to buy gas, the plaintiffs said.

“Ensuring that all voters have access to the polls is a foundational component to our democracy, and we are pleased that our organizers can continue their get-out-the-vote and ballot collection efforts on every reservation in Montana,” said Marci McLean, executive director of Western Native Voice.

The referendum was placed on the ballot by the Republican-led Legislature in 2017 and 64% of Montana voters approved it in 2018.

The initial intent of the law was to give voters legal backing to call law enforcement if people were badgering them for their ballots, said state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell, the Republican lawmaker who sponsored the legislation.

He has argued the law doesn’t harm tribal members.

“If you can get your ballot in the mail you can deliver it back in the mail,” Olszewski said in May after Fehr temporarily restrained enforcement of the law.

Election administrators in three counties told a state legislative committee in February that the law frustrated voters, suppressed votes and was easily bypassed because people could collect absentee ballots and mail them instead of dropping them off.

The plaintiffs argued the law didn’t make it clear that groups could collect ballots and mail them without legal repercussions.

The lawsuit named Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, Attorney General Tim Fox and Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan in their official capacities.

The attorney general’s office said it was reviewing the order and declined to comment on the ruling said spokesperson John Barnes. The other officials did not immediately return an email request for comment.