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Judge: New voter laws “unconstitutional” and permanently enjoined

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Jackie Yamanaka
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Yellowstone Public Radio/file photo

A district court judge in Billings Friday permanently struck down three election administration laws in Montana, declaring that eliminating Election Day voter registration, implementing new voter identification requirements and barring paid ballot collection are unconstitutional.

The order, issued by Yellowstone District Court Judge Michael Moses, closes the book on the court’s deliberations in a consolidated lawsuit that started shortly after Republicans in the Montana Legislature passed the laws in spring 2021. The lawsuit was filed against Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen by the Montana Democratic Party, Western Native Voice, Montana Youth Action and a coalition of tribal and youth advocacy groups. Moses presided over a nine-day trial last month, during which he acknowledged the time-sensitive nature of the case given Montana’s upcoming election and assured both sides he would reach a decision as quickly as possible.

In his ruling, Moses noted that the law ending Election Day voter registration — House Bill 176 — “severely burdens the right to vote of Montana voters, particularly Native American voters, students, the elderly, and voters with disabilities.” He reached a similar conclusion regarding House Bill 530’s prohibition on paid ballot collection. As for Senate Bill 169, which required student IDs to be accompanied by a second form of identification at the polls, Moses wrote that the law “violates the Equal Protection Clause by imposing heightened and unequal burdens on Montana’s youngest voters.”

All three laws had already been subject to a preliminary injunction issued by Moses this spring and upheld by the Montana Supreme Court this month. Moses’ order vacates that temporary injunction, replacing it with a permanent ban on enforcement of the laws ahead of the Nov. 8 general election. A fourth law challenged in the lawsuit, which barred counties from sending mail ballots to minors who would turn 18 by Election Day, was already declared unconstitutional by Moses this summer.

Moses’ ruling was announced just before 5 p.m. on Friday. Montana Free Press will follow up with more detail next week.