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Government & Politics

Montana Attorney General Takes Ballot Deadline To Supreme Court

Ballots for the Republican, Democratic and Green parties during the 2020 primary election in Montana.
Yellowstone Public Radio
A Yellowstone County District Court judge issued an injunction on May 22 temporarily suspending a state law saying mail in ballots must be received at a county election office by 8 P.M. on Election Day.

Montana’s attorney general is asking the state supreme court to restore a recently blocked state deadline for receiving mail in ballots ahead of the Jun. 2 primary. The election is being conducted by mail due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

A Yellowstone County District Court judge issued an injunction on May 22 temporarily suspending a state law saying mail in ballots must be received at a county election office by 8 P.M. on Election Day. The order says ballots must instead be postmarked by Election Day.

State Attorney General Tim Fox on May 26 asked the Montana Supreme Court to halt the district court’s order and quickly rule on the law establishing Montana’s Election Day receipt deadline.

A spokesperson for Fox declined to comment on the request due to ongoing proceedings. In a court filing, Fox argues a later ballot deadline this close to the primary will threaten the upcoming election’s integrity, while confusing voters and election officials.

The state supreme court hasn’t scheduled any next steps on the request submitted by Fox, who is also running for governor as a Republican.

As for the district court injunction’s ground level impacts, Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford says his office is already set up to process ballots after Election Day. He says the bigger issue is ensuring voters have the correct information to submit envelopes in time.

“Obviously, it’s frustrating to have to change your message on a daily basis, especially now that the original message tells voters to get their votes back in the office by Jun 2. So we’re just going to have to roll with it,” Rutherford says.

Rutherford advises voters to try to get their ballots into their local election office by Jun. 2 anyway, in case the new Election Day postmark deadline is overturned in the meantime.

Fox also issued an earlier request on Friday for the district court to delay its initial injunction while the state appeals to the Montana Supreme Court. The district court hasn’t responded to that request.

In Friday’s injunction, the district court found the state’s original ballot receipt deadline would “significantly suppress voter turnout” by disproportionately burdening people who are Native American, elderly, disabled, poor or first time voters, among others. District Court Judge Donald Harris also wrote the deadline would, “only exacerbate voter suppression because of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The court found the state failed to present any evidence that the deadline promotes a compelling state interest.

Members of Montana’s Democratic Party filed the initial challenge to the state’s Election Day receipt deadline.