Montana High Court Says No to Extra Week of Voting

The Montana statehouse in Helena. (Courthouse News photo / Chris Marshall)

(CN) — The Montana Supreme Court overturned a lower court order Wednesday that would have given voters an extra week to turn in their ballots.

The ruling comes on the heels of a lawsuit that had sought to overturn the Legislature’s Ballot Interference Protection Act. The Montana Democratic Party along with the Native American Rights Fund and ACLU had sought to halt the law, which they said imposed severe restrictions on ballot collection efforts that are critical to Native American voters.

They sued on behalf of the Assiniboine & Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Crow Tribe, and Fort Belknap Indian Community, as well as Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote.

A judge blocked the act and this past Friday Judge Donald Harris extended the deadline for mail-in ballots to June 8. Montana’s primary election is June 2.

The lawsuit came after county election officials in Montana had already mailed out over 601,000 absentee ballots. Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton brought up this point in his request for a stay on the injunction.

“There was no urgency to this challenge, which came decades after the Legislature created the mail-ballot deadline,” Stapleton said in his request for a writ of supervisory control. “The only deadline challenged in the complaint was codified more than eight years ago. Respondents’ long delay before seeking a preliminary injunction implies a lack of urgency and irreparable harm.”

Deputy Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen said Wednesday’s ruling by the high court will help avoid voter confusion. “The disruption to the voting process has ended,” she said. “As has been the practice for decades, ballots will not be counted if they are not received by the 8 p.m. deadline.”

Stapleton is on the ballot, running for Montana’s lone congressional seat being vacated by Greg Gianforte. Gianforte is running for governor.

“This year’s all-mail-ballot primary election is a first for Montana and presents an unusual situation,” the Supreme Court majority wrote in its ruling. “Election administrators have responded swiftly to ensure that ballots were timely mailed to voters across Montana. Because those ballots include an express directive that they will not be counted unless received by the 8 p.m. election-day deadline, we conclude that there is good cause to maintain the election-day deadline for this primary election in order to avoid voter confusion and disruption of election administration.”

Justice Dirk Sandefur and chief justice Mike McGrath dissented.

Stapleton’s request for a stay did not address the original Ballot Interference Act suit, so the remainder of that act is still enjoined.

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