WASHINGTON, D.C. — On Friday, Sept. 30, a Montana trial court struck down three voter suppression laws for violating the Montana Constitution — a huge win for voters. This decision stems from a consolidated lawsuit brought by the Montana Democratic Party, Western Native Voice and Montana Youth Action challenging three suppressive voting laws: House Bill 176, which eliminated Election Day registration; House Bill 530, which banned paid ballot collection and curtails other forms of ballot return assistance and Senate Bill 169, which changed voter identification laws and makes it more difficult to vote with a student ID. The consolidated lawsuit originally included a fourth challenged law, House Bill 506, which was struck down in July.
In today’s order, the court walked through the extensive evidence presented over the course of a multi-week trial that highlighted the burdens that H.B. 176, S.B. 169 and H.B. 530 placed on Montana voters. Regarding H.B. 176, the judge held that eliminating Election Day registration posed unnecessary burdens on the right to vote that’s guaranteed under the state constitution. The evidence presented throughout trial highlighted that the “severity of the burden is greater when it disproportionately falls upon populations,” such as Native American voters, students, older voters and voters with disabilities, “who already face greater barriers to participation and are less likely to be able to overcome those increased costs.” In striking down H.B. 530, the judge ruled that restricting ballot collection efforts (especially without properly defining what qualifies as restricted activity) will disproportionately affect those who face barriers when returning their absentee ballots and rely on civic and political organizations to do so. Finally, in permanently blocking S.B. 169, the judge concluded that the Republican-controlled Legislature intentionally targeted young voters by eliminating the use of student IDs as acceptable standalone IDs, finding that the new ID restrictions placed “heightened and unequal burdens on Montana’s youngest voters.” The judge pointed out that it “is no accident that the Legislature passed SB 169 just months after Montana’s youngest voters turned out to vote at record rates.” In total, the judge rejected the state’s defense of the three laws, pointing out that there “is no evidence of any voter fraud in Montana associated with [Election Day registration], student IDs, or third-party ballot assistance, and not even the Secretary’s own witnesses believe voter fraud is a problem in Montana.”
Of note, the order released today also outright rejected the Montana secretary of state’s invocation of the fringe independent state legislature (ISL) theory that is the focus of an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case. The secretary argued that the Elections Clause of the U.S. Constitution prohibits state courts from overriding the laws to suggest that the “relief Plaintiffs seek would violate the U.S. Constitution.” The judge did not give the ISL theory any weight, noting that the secretary’s “attempt to insulate the Legislature’s actions from judicial review violates nearly a century of Supreme Court precedent.” In rejecting the ISL line of reasoning, the order concluded that the suggestion that “this Court may not review the Challenged Laws relies on an incorrect reading of the Elections Clause of the federal Constitution that would unmoor any legislative action related to voting from the very Constitution that even creates the Montana Legislature.”
This decision is a major victory for Montana voters, specifically Native American, young voters and voters with disabilities who would have been adversely impacted by these laws.