Protect Montana’s Youth Vote

A Montana grizzly bear surrounded by voter suppressions bills with text that say, "HOUSE BILL 176, SENATE BILL 169, HOUSE BILL 506."

Voting is a right, not a privilege. But during the 2021 legislative session, Montana legislators seemed to forget this central tenet and passed a myriad of bills suppressing Montanans’ fundamental right to vote. That is why Forward Montana Foundation, Montana Youth Action, and Montana Public Research Interest Group (MontPIRG) are suing the state over the constitutionality of three voter suppression laws.

The first law is Senate Bill 169, a law that downgrades student IDs to a second-class form of ID, making it more difficult for students to vote.  S.B. 169 requires pairing student IDs with a second document. But other forms of ID — like a Montana concealed carry permit — have been elevated to suffice as standalone ID.  This blatantly discriminates against students, a population largely made up of young people, who certainly have student ID but who may lack a driver’s license, passport or another type of “first class” photo ID such as a concealed carry permit. 

The second bill, House Bill 506, blocks election officials from distributing ballots to young people who are registered to vote, and people who will be 18 and eligible to vote on Election Day, from receiving a ballot until they have actually turned 18.  Not only does this place an extra administrative burden on election workers in Montana — who are accustomed to distributing absentee ballots in advance of Election Day — it also targets 17-year-olds who are turning 18, imposing an especially heavy burden on them for no reason. It’s possible that our youngest voters who have moved out of state for college or need to vote absentee for any other reason, might not be able to cast their ballots at all.

Lastly, we challenge House Bill 176, which eliminates Election Day registration in Montana. Since 2005, Montanans have been able to register to vote at their polling place on Election Day, enabling thousands of Montanans to vote. In 2014, Montana voters rejected an effort to dismantle Election Day registration. And, election officials testified in committee hearings on H.B. 176 that ending registration before Election Day would complicate their work. Nevertheless, Montana’s state Legislature chose to repeal Election Day voter registration. 

Together, these three bills are part and parcel of the cocktail of voter suppression bills passed in Montana’s 2021 legislative session. 

We know that what we’re doing is not just about us — voter suppression laws burden everyone. But laws that target our generation jeopardize our future. We pay taxes, build roads and bridges, drive our cattle, run our farms and raise Montana’s next generation. It is unacceptable for partisan politicians in the state Legislature to try to score political points by silencing our voices at the ballot box.

Lawmakers and politicians often overlook our generation when crafting legislation, despite the impact these laws have on our lives and futures. But 28% of Montanans are under the age of 34. We are a defining political force and the future of our communities. We will not be bullied. We will not be silenced. 

Scout McMahon is the Initiatives Chair of Montana Youth Action.

Kiersten Iwai is the Executive Director at Forward Montana Foundation.

Liz Albers is the Executive Director of MontPIRG.