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Tribes, Voting Rights Groups Challenge Montana Ballot Drop Off Law

Someone drops a ballot into a box to vote in this stock photo.
Jackie Yamanaka
Yellowstone Public Radio
Someone drops a ballot into a box to vote.

Five Native American tribes and voting rights organizations are challenging a new Montana law that limits the number of ballots a person can deliver on others’ behalf. The lawsuit filed Thursday seeks to put a stop to the law before the June 2 primary.

The Ballot Interference Prevention Act, or BIPA, passed by voters in 2018 limits the number of ballots a person or group can drop off on someone else’s behalf to six. It also requires people to sign a form letting election officials know if they’re dropping off another person's ballot.

Native American tribes, Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote say this makes it more difficult for people living on rural reservations to vote. In the lawsuit filed on their behalf, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund call the restriction a violation of state constitutional rights to vote and freedom of speech and association.

Lillian Alvernaz, in Indigenous justice legal fellow with the ACLU of Montana, says people living on rural reservations rely on get-out-the-vote organizers to collect and transport ballots to election and post offices that would otherwise be inaccessible.

"Organizations like Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote make it possible for a lot of people to vote who otherwise maybe couldn't, and one example of that is through their organizing efforts and ballot collection efforts," Alvernaz says.

Montana voters passed BIPA in 2018 by 63 to 37 percent after it failed in the legislature the previous year. Under the law only spouses, family or household members, caregivers or close acquaintances may turn in ballots after filling out a form at home or the election office.

Previously, get out the vote groups could round up hundreds of ballots in rural areas to bring to election offices. That led some people to worry about voter fraud, though election officials have found no evidence of voter fraud by absentee ballot in Montana. Alvernaz with the ACLU says her organization plans to file a preliminary injunction next week.

The lawsuit appeals to the Secretary of State, Attorney General and Commissioner of Political Practices. COPP Jeff Mangan said his office will release a statement upon review and when appropriate.