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Judge Blocks Montana From Enforcing Absentee Ballot Law

A 2020 Montana primary election absentee ballot
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
A 2020 Montana primary election absentee ballot

A Montana judge issued a ruling Tuesday that blocks the state from enforcing a voter-approved law restricting the collection of absentee ballots during elections.

Tuesday's ruling from District Judge Jessica Fehr came after the Billings-based judge temporarily halted the Ballot Interference Protection Act two weeks before the June primary election.

The law – passed by voter referendum in 2018 – limits one person to turning in a maximum of six absentee ballots.

Fehr wrote the law would “significantly suppress vote turnout by disproportionately harming rural communities." She said Native Americans in rural tribes across the seven Indian reservation located in Montana would be particularly harmed.

The ACLU, Native American tribes and advocacy groups sued in March to block it, arguing the law disproportionately harms American Indians who live in rural areas and rely on others to collect and convey their ballots to elections offices or post offices.

Rural Native Americans may not have home mail service. They also have difficulty getting to polling sites because of limited hours, unreliable roads, lack of access to a vehicle and limited money to buy gas, the complaint argued.

The referendum was approved by 64% of voter in 2018.

Supporters argued the law doesn't harm tribal members. Its initial intent was to give citizens the legal backing to call law enforcement if someone was badgering them for their ballot, said state Sen. Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, who sponsored the legislation.

Election administrators in three counties told a state legislative committee in February that the law was frustrating electors, suppressing votes and is easily bypassed because people could collect absentee ballots and mail them rather than drop them off.

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