HELENA — A Helena attorney wants to change Montana's constitution to explicitly ban non-U.S. citizens from voting in elections, a measure that one immigrant-rights advocate called an attempt to stoke anti-immigration sentiment ahead of midterm elections.
Chris Gallus, who has previously represented conservative groups and individuals, submitted his proposed ballot initiative on Thursday to the Secretary of State's office for a review.
He said he is seeking to preserve the integrity of state elections, though Montana's constitution and statutes already define a qualified voter as a U.S. citizen who has been a resident of the state for at least 30 days.
"The way it is now ought to be enough, however, there is a political debate out there that it is not," Gallus said.
President Donald Trump claimed without evidence that millions of people illegally voted in the 2016 elections. More recently, a conservative group filed a federal lawsuit seeking access to Pennsylvania election records over its claims that more than 100,000 noncitizen immigrants had been registered to vote in the state, which state election officials have said is untrue.
There are no known instances of noncitizens registering to vote in Montana, according to Dana Corson, the director of elections and voter services for the Secretary of State's office.
Gallus said concern over voter fraud did not prompt his proposal. Instead, he is worried about the potential spread of the policies set by a few cities and towns in Maryland that allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in local elections, in addition to San Francisco allowing noncitizen parents to vote in upcoming school board elections.
Immigration attorney Shahid Haque said the existing provisions in Montana law already prevent noncitizens from voting. Haque believes the measure is an attempt to rile up and draw anti-immigrant residents to the voting booth with misleading claims, he said.
"When you have a reactionary ballot initiative like this, which jumps the gun to address something that isn't even happening here, you can smell the xenophobia from a mile away," Haque said.
Gallus denied the initiative would be used as bait to lure conservative voters. "It is neither a red herring nor a reaction to any of the immigration-type debates going on in Congress or anywhere else," he said.
University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone said the state constitution's framers deliberately avoided putting into the document the level of detail that Gallus is seeking to enshrine, in order to give lawmakers the ability to make changes in residency requirements, if needed.
If Gallus' proposal passes a legal review, he will have to gather the signatures of 10 percent of voters spread over 40 legislative districts - 50,936 signatures total - for the measure to be placed on the ballot in November's election.