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Trial underway for controversial new Montana voting laws

Voting rights in Montana are on trial as a Billings judge hears arguments
Posted at 9:05 AM, Aug 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-16 11:05:21-04

BILLINGS Voting rights in Montana are on trial as a Billings judge hears arguments over three new laws passed by the Montana Legislature in 2021, all affecting Montanans at the polls.

Judge Michael G. Moses is presiding over the case in Yellowstone County District Court.

There are 11 plaintiffs suing Christi Jacobsen in her official capacity as Montana secretary of state including the Montana Democratic Party, Western Native Voice, Montana Youth Action, and an individual, Micah Bohn.

Opening arguments took place Monday morning over the course of an hour. The trial is expected to last two weeks.

“It’s a diverse group of plaintiff organizations and an individual representing numerous perspectives. They have one thing in common and that one thing is a belief in democracy. And that democracy is better when more people can access a franchise," said Matt Gordon, an attorney representing the Montana Democratic Party.

The question posed to the court is if three laws passed during the 2021 legislative session violate Montanans' constitutional rights.

“What is not okay, is to needlessly complicate the fundamentals of a democratic system. And what is far from okay is to make that complication affect particularly one portion of the population," said Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, an attorney for youth plaintiffs in the case.

“We believe that when the court hears all of the testimony and evidence in this matter, you will come to the one and only conclusion that these three statues are constitutional," said Leonard Smith, counsel for the defense.

The three new voting laws originated from House Bill 530, House Bill 176 and Senate Bill 169.

House Bill 530 prevents groups or individuals who collect and turn in ballots from receiving any monetary compensation; House Bill 176 ends Election Day voter registration and Senate Bill 169 re-classifies student ID cards as secondary forms of identification that must be used with another form of ID when voting.

The bills immediately drew legal challenges from voting rights groups who say all of these measures make it harder for certain Montanans to vote — especially young voters and Native Americans.

Bill proponents and defense attorneys in the case say the laws make Montana elections safer, reduce fraud and error and actually improve accessibility.

“Paid ballot collection especially by partisan organizations has the potential to undermine voter confidence in the security and integrity of elections in Montana," Smith said.

The first witness called by counsel for the plaintiffs was an expert witness, Dr. Dan McCool, who specializes in voter rights, voter access, and Native American voting rights and access.

McCool presented data he compiled in a 100-plus page report detailing Native American voting access in Montana and the concept of 'voter costs', which are impediments people face when they try to register and vote. McCool says voter costs can be physical barriers, health outcomes, historical or legacies of trauma, socioeconomic and more.

McCool explains voter costs are cumulative and the higher the tally of voter costs, the harder it is to vote. Fewer voter costs equal easier voting. Following cross examination, McCool was released and further witnesses were called.

The trial is scheduled to run on weekdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., through Aug. 26.