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Montana Dems file challenge to new voting laws

Christi Jacobsen

Republican Christi Jacobsen is sworn in as Montana Secretary of State at the Montana State Capitol.

Montana Democrats have filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, challenging two measures the party claims will suppress the votes of Native Americans, students and other groups in the state, a day after Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte signed them into law.

Filed in Yellowstone County District Court, the complaint seeks to overturn House Bill 176 and Senate Bill 169 as unconstitutional, and requests the court block the state from enforcing them. HB 176 eliminates voter registration on Election Day and SB 169 makes photo identification mandatory to vote in person, while tightening voter ID requirements. Both were top priorities of Jacobsen, a Republican.

"As Democrats, we stand and have always fought for fair elections, and I think it goes against everything we believe as Americans to impede people's voting rights," Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sandi Luckey said Tuesday.

The case has been assigned to Judge Mary Jane Knisely.

In the complaint, the Democrats characterize the new laws as “legislative shadowboxing aimed at imaginary threats to election integrity, and false accusations of election fraud orchestrated by those seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.”

The secretary of state’s office did not respond to requests for comment. In a statement, Sen. Mike Cuffe, a Eureka Republican who sponsored SB 169, called his measure a "very reasonable and important piece of legislation."

"Given that the federal courts have already endorsed very similar laws in other states, I don’t anticipate any problems with this bill," Cuffe stated.

The complaint accuses the Republican-controlled Legislature of passing laws that would disproportionately burden the ability of students, the elderly, people with disabilities and Native Americans to vote. The party alleges the laws violate the state Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and the right to vote, while discriminating against certain Montanans based on age.

Republicans, who have largely supported both measures, have argued the changes in law will strengthen “election integrity” in Montana, while generally avoiding any specific references to election fraud.

“Montana sets the standard for elections across the country, however, there is always room for improvement, and voter ID and voter registration deadlines are best practices in protecting the integrity of elections,” Jacobsen stated in a Monday press release announcing the signing of the two bills.

The policy allowing people to register and vote on Election Day has been in place since 2005, the lawsuit notes, after passing the Legislature with broad, bipartisan support. HB 176 requires voters to be registered by noon on the Monday before Election Day.

The lawsuit alleges that voters in the state “are nearly 16 times more likely to register on Election Day than on any other day during the late registration period” and that experts have found that Election Day registration increases overall turnout by an average of 5%.

The complaint criticizes the new voter ID restrictions as “an even more precise attack on Montana’s youngest voters.”

SB 169 creates the requirement for photo ID to vote in person, and specifies that only a state photo ID or driver’s license, tribal photo ID, military ID or concealed carry permit is sufficient by itself. For other types of photo ID, including those issued by high schools and colleges, voters would also need to provide an official document showing their name and address — such as a utility bill, bank statement or car registration.

The Democrats’ complaint argues, though, that during the 20 years that student IDs have been sufficient to vote, “the law has been entirely effective at preventing even a single known instance of voter fraud in the state.”

Multiple lawsuits in recent years have failed to turn up any documented cases of election fraud in the state’s modern history.

The lawsuit quotes the sponsor of HB 176, Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, as stating during a Senate panel hearing that “when she mentioned voter fraud, she ‘wasn’t talking about Montana specifically.’”

In a statement, Greef said her bill "respects local election officials and Montana voters by ensuring that election day is focused solely on voting and counting ballots."

The lawsuit was filed by Helena attorney Mike Meloy and Seattle-based attorney Matthew Gordon, who has represented the Montana Democrats in previous challenges to the secretary of state.

Meloy also represents the parent company of The Billings Gazette, Helena Independent Record, Missoulian, Montana Standard and Ravalli Republic in a separate, ongoing court case filed against a Republican lawmaker.

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