What advocates call a “cocktail” of new voter suppression laws in Montana, disproportionately disenfranchising the state’s Indigenous population and younger voters, were struck down by a judge in September.
The laws, ruled unconstitutional, had been on hold under a temporary injunction since April. The decision could be appealed.
All three laws emerged from the 2021 legislative session. House Bill 530 would have prohibited paid ballot collection, which is especially valuable to Indigenous voters living on remote reservations who rely on civic groups to pick up their ballots. Senate Bill 176 would have ended Election Day voter registration. Senate Bill 169 would have required that students provide proof of residency in addition to their student ID when they register to vote and when they go to the polls.
The 11 plaintiffs suing Montana’s Secretary of State over a range of new restrictions included the Montana Democratic Party, Western Native Voice and Montana Youth Action.
The bills, according to the state’s Republican-majority Legislature, aim to increase election security and prevent voter fraud. Despite extensive attempts to establish such concerns as a threat, no significant voter fraud has been found in Montana.
“Each bill on its own is not good, but all of the bills combined just adds more layers,” said Kiersten Iwai, executive director of Forward Montana, which seeks to empower young people in the state. “People are frustrated, they are disillusioned. It adds to the narrative of ‘my vote doesn’t count.’”
A 2021 law that remains in force would allow local elections officials to shorten the hours of any polling place with fewer than 400 registered voters intending to cast their ballots in person. The state normally requires polling places to be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. The law changed the definition of low-population precincts that can — with a couple of exceptions — eliminate morning hours, increasing the odds that more will do so.
Paid ballot collection
House Bill 530 would have banned anyone from receiving “pecuniary benefit,” or monetary compensation, for ballot collection. State Democrats argue the term is intentionally broad and could be used to include people like nursing home employees or in-home caregivers who assist the elderly and people with disabilities in getting absentee ballots delivered.
Those who would be most affected, however, are Indigenous voters, said Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, founder of Upper Seven Law and attorney for the lawsuit’s youth plaintiffs.
There are an estimated 78,000 Indigenous people living in Montana – about 7% of the state’s population, and one of the largest populations in the nation. Most live on one of seven reservations in the state.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
“Mail service is far more erratic, postal offices are fewer and farther between, and travel can be more difficult,” Sommers-Flanagan said. “It’s cultural, it’s socioeconomic and it’s very much logistical.”
The Blackfeet reservation in Montana, for example, had only four ballot drop-off locations in 2020 – and it’s almost the size of Delaware. A lawsuit has resulted in an additional satellite office on the reservation.
This is not the first time Montana’s legislature has tried to restrict ballot collection. In 2018, Montana voters approved the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, a measure that limited the number of completed ballots someone could deliver to election officials. It also barred nonprofit groups from collecting those ballots.
In 2020, a state judge permanently blocked the law from taking effect.
A bill that would have ended Montana’s policy of allowing Election Day voter registration would present the most difficulties for young voters and tribal communities, Sommers-Flanagan said.
For Indigenous voters traveling from far-flung locations, same-day registration creates a one-stop shop that alleviates some of the burden.
It also benefits first-time voters and more transient populations – like youth voters – who may not know they need to update their address information.
“Voters have relied on same-day registration for over a decade, and to remove an avenue that’s previously available is really hard,” Sommers-Flanagan said.
It is also an important safeguard when the voter has made a mistake, or for voters who cannot break away from other obligations to make more than one trip, she said.
“It prevents people from being disenfranchised because of an error or because they have other obligations,” she said. “We’re all really busy and sometimes we just get behind. For people who are working three jobs, taking the time required to get registered to vote requires dropping other things in your life, and sometimes that’s not possible.”
Opponents of same-day voter registration say ending it will result in shorter lines at the polls.
Student ID declassification
Senate Bill 169 would have overturned Montana’s policy of allowing students to use school IDs to register and vote. People without a government-issued state photo ID – even if they have an ID from a state government school – would have had to provide two forms of identification. The second could be a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or government document showing name and address.
Those documents may be hard to come by for college students, Iwai said.
“A lot of students might be living in the dorms and not have a utility bill, or working odd jobs and not getting a paycheck,” Iwai said. “It just adds another barrier.”
“It doesn’t make sense to exclude student IDs, because the Montana University system acts a lot like a state institution,” Sommers-Flanagan said. “It feels like they’ve set out specifically to reduce turnout among students.”
This is not the first proposed restriction affecting Montana’s youth vote. Youth plaintiffs challenged another law that prohibited election officials from distributing ballots to eligible voters who turned 18 during the month leading up to Election Day. The judge struck down the law late last month.
Senate Bill 319 began as a campaign finance bill, but an 11th-hour revision included an amendment banning registration and voter turnout efforts on college campuses. That 2021 bill was struck down by a state court on the basis of the single-subject rule, which stipulates that some types of legislation can address only one primary issue.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.