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Lawmakers Advance Bill To Limit Ballot Collection In Montana

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

Montana lawmakers are considering several bills this session that aim to regulate election practices, including one that’s nearly identical to a policy that’s currently tied up in court.

Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines Tuesday evening to advance House Bill 406. It would prohibit people or organizations from dropping off ballots for other people. There are some exceptions, like for postal carriers or relatives. 

Republican Rep. Mark Noland is carrying the bill.

"We know where we’re supposed to go drop our ballots off. We know there’s a time frame. This is not a hard thing. People have made it become a hard thing. Some people wait 'til the last minute. But it’s the integrity of the vote."

The bill is nearly identical to the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, or BIPA, which was placed on the 2018 ballot by the Montana Legislature and approved by voters. The law caps the number of ballots a person or group can drop off for someone else at six. 

The law was struck down in district court last summer. The judge wrote it would "significantly suppress voter turnout by disproportionately harming rural communities."

The case has been appealed to the Montana Supreme Court and not yet seen a final decision.

Jamie MacNaughton, a lawyer for the Commissioner of Political Practices, spoke in opposition to House Bill 406, saying it doesn’t rectify the issues the court found with BIPA. 

No one spoke in support of the bill. Representatives of tribes, students, county clerks and recorders and human rights organizations spoke in opposition to the bill. 

Opponents say ballot collection is vital for residents who live in rural places, don’t have cars or easy access to transportation, are disabled or can't leave home, as during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Daliyah Killsback is with Western Native Voice. 

"Ballot collection is often one of the only ways that American Indians are able to participate in the democratic process, and this bill would disproportionately impact our communities, especially those on rural reservations," Killsback says.

House Bill 406 will move to the House floor next for debate. 

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.