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Challenge To Montana Ballot Collection Limit Being Heard This Week

A voter drops off mail-in ballots at the Yellowstone County Court House June 2, 2020.
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
A voter drops off mail-in ballots at the Yellowstone County Court House June 2, 2020.

A Montana district court began trial hearings on Sept. 8 regarding the legality of a state law that limits the number of ballots a person can deliver on others’ behalf.

Yellowstone County District Court Judge Jessica Fehr is hearing the first of two trials tied to the Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA), which caps the number of absentee ballots a person or group can drop off for someone else at six.

In Western Native Voice v. Stapleton, a coalition of Indigenous advocacy groups and tribal governments sued to prevent the state from enforcing BIPA, saying it threatens the voting rights of people on rural reservations.

Meanwhile, state officials say the voter approved law is necessary to preserve election integrity.

University of Montana law professor Anthony Johnstone says the cases fit into a nationwide trend of increasingly partisan legal sparring over elections. He says the rulings should provide clarity on when, if ever, the state can restrict Montanans’ voting access for alleged concerns of fraud.

“In other words, what proof does the state have to have if it’s going to make it harder for Montanans to vote,” Johnstone said.

Johnstone says there are vanishingly few instances of documented mail ballot voting fraud. Judge Fehr temporarily blocked BIPA before the June primary. In a later order she wrote the law would “significantly suppress voter turnout by disproportionately harming rural communities."

The Montana Democratic Party also filed a lawsuit against BIPA with an additional challenge to the state’s 8 P.M. Election Day ballot receipt deadline. That trial begins Sept. 14 in Yellowstone County District Court.

Previous injunctions from both cases were also appealed to the Montana Supreme Court. Johnstone says the high court may promptly issue rulings to provide guidance during the district court hearings, or it could wait for potential appeals pending the conclusion of the lower court cases.

Regardless, Johnstone says judges will hold proceedings with an eye toward November.

“We should expect all of the courts involved to work quickly to ensure there’s guidance for the state as we approach administering this election,” Johnstone said.

Oral arguments for Western Native Voice v. Stapleton are expected to run through the week. Johnstone says a ruling may not come for several weeks.