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Tribes seek to pause laws to end Election Day registration, restrict ballot collection

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Voting at MetraPark

Scott Grow seals his ballot in the envelope inside the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark in Billings on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Several tribes and Indigenous-rights groups in Montana on Wednesday asked a state district court judge to put the brakes on new election laws that ended Election Day registration and restricted ballot-collection practices in the state.

Arguing that the changes will irreparably harm the voting rights of Native Americans living in Montana, the plaintiffs are asking Yellowstone District Court Judge Michael G. Moses to issue an injunction blocking the enforcement of the two laws until a ruling is made on their constitutionality.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the request for a preliminary injunction on behalf of a coalition that includes Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote and the Blackfeet, Confederated Salish and Kootenai, Fort Belknap Indian Community and Northern Cheyenne tribes.

The lawsuit was initially filed by the groups as a challenge to two election-related bills signed into law following the 2021 legislative session. Last month it was consolidated with two other cases challenging Republican-led changes to voting laws. Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is the defendant in the case.

In previous elections, Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote have both engaged in gathering and turning in absentee ballots to make it easier for Native Americans in the state to vote by mail-in ballots. Other get-out-the-vote groups, including some active on college campuses, also collect and turn in ballots for voters who may have difficulty getting to places to drop off their ballots.

Republicans in the Legislature opposed those efforts, which they often refer to as “ballot harvesting,” as a potential source of voter fraud. After a separate effort to ban the practice failed to advance from the 2021 legislative session, Republicans amended HB 530 to include some of those proposed restrictions.

An earlier law, passed through a ballot initiative, had restricted third-party ballot collection in Montana until it was struck down by a state district court judge in 2020.

The groups argue in the injunction request that the restrictions will have an outsized impact on Native Americans living on reservations, which “are home to thousands of Montana voters who lack equal access to registration and voting opportunities and who experience greater barriers to casting mail ballots.”

The filing also notes that satellite polling locations hosted by county election offices on reservations often have limited hours and days of operation during the early voting period. Without being able to register on Election Day, the groups argue, those voters are more likely to be forced “to travel further than their non-Native counterparts who live off-reservation — something that is especially difficult for the disproportionate number of Natives living in Montana who lack access to a vehicle or do not have money for insurance or gasoline.”

The plaintiffs argue that the new laws pose a sufficient threat to their due process, free speech and other fundamental rights under the state and federal constitutions, that the court should grant the injunction until the constitutional challenges are resolved.

The consolidated case also includes a challenge to a new law that added new restrictions to the state's voter identification rules, including requiring students who use their college identification to furnish a secondary form of ID. Another law that limits campaign activities on college campuses is also being challenged in the case.

In a statement, ACLU Montana Executive Director Caitlin Borgmann argued that the laws are geared toward making it harder for Native voters to cast their ballots.

“Montana legislators should be working to broaden access to the polls for all Montanans, including Indigenous voters,” Borgmann stated in a press release announcing the court filing.

On Wednesday, Jacobsen spokesperson Richie Melby issued a statement from Jacobsen, vowing to defend new election laws and stating that "thousands of Montanans have had their voices heard by casting their votes since state officials implemented Montana's very reasonable election rules."

Montana’s primary election is scheduled for June 7. School district elections will be held on May 3, and ballots for that election will be sent out beginning on April 13.

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