HELENA — Three groups that promote voting by younger Montanans filed suit Thursday to overturn a trio of new Republican-passed laws making it more difficult to vote, arguing the laws unconstitutionally target and affect young voters.
The suit, filed in state District Court in Billings, said the laws come in the wake of dramatic increases in voting by young people in Montana since 2014, fostered in part by organizing from the groups that sued.
“Oblivious to these efforts – or, worse, in response to them – the Montana Legislature passed a cocktail of voter-suppression measures that land heavily on the young,” the suit said.
The suit filed by Montana Youth Action, Forward Montana Foundation and the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) asked the court to strike down three laws passed by the 2021 Legislature:
· Senate Bill 169, which restricts or increases the types of identification that citizens must present to vote or register to vote.
· House Bill 176, which eliminated Montana’s 15-year-old Election Day registration, closing registration instead on the day before the election.
· HB506, which says those eligible to vote on Election Day cannot be given a ballot prior to that day until they’re 18 or until they’ve lived in the precinct for 30 days.
The suit said the laws place burdens on the fundamental right to vote in Montana, without a compelling state interest – and therefore must be voided as unconstitutional.
Thursday’s action is the fourth lawsuit filed this year, challenging laws passed by Republicans at the 2021 Legislature that restrict voting, voter registration or voter-mobilization activity.
It named as a defendant Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, the state’s chief election officer. Jacobsen was “directly involved” in the three laws’ passage, testifying in person before legislative committees for two of the bills and proposing the other one, the suit said.
In a statement Thursday, Jacobsen said "voters of Montana spoke" when they elected a secretary of state promising "improved election integrity" with voter ID and voter-registration deadlines, and that she'll work hard to defend those measures.
All three bills were sponsored by Republicans and passed the Legislature on the strength of its GOP majorities. On final votes, no Democratic lawmaker voted for any of the bills.
Supporters of the bills said the new laws would make elections more secure, but presented no evidence that voter fraud has occurred in Montana under its prior system, the lawsuit said.
The new laws “unconstitutionally burden Montanans’ fundamental right to vote, both subverting the will of Montana voters and upending norms that Montana voters have come to rely on – for no reason, let alone a compelling one,” the suit said.
The lawsuit said the laws directly or indirectly affect younger voters more than other voters, violating equal-protection and anti-discrimination provisions of the state constitution.
For example, SB169, the voter-ID bill, eliminated the use of student ID cards as an acceptable form of “stand-alone” identification that voters must present to register to vote or vote, the suit noted. Now, anyone using a Montana student ID must also present a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government document showing their name and address.
At the same time, a person with a concealed-weapon permit need show only that permit to vote or register to vote, the suit said, elevating their rights above those of students.
“SB169’s changes serve no purpose but to make it more difficult for many Montanans to vote,” the lawsuit said.
In HB506, voters registered and eligible to vote on Election Day are prohibited from getting an absentee ballot in advance if they’re not yet 18 or haven’t yet lived in their precinct for at least 30 days.
The suit said the law needlessly imposes a more difficult process on younger voters and election officials, for no discernible purpose – except to reduce voter turnout.
“HB506 takes an otherwise simple process and complicates it, requiring election officials to withhold ballots from registered voters who will be qualified to vote on election day simply because of the timing of their birthdays,” the suit said.