Montana Judge Halts Ballot Gathering Restrictions Weeks Before June Primary

Montana State Capitol in Helena. (Chris Marshall/CNS)

(CN) — A Montana judge agreed Wednesday to put a temporary restraining order on a state law that tribal groups say harshly disenfranchises Native American voters.

Judge Jessica Fehr of Montana’s Thirteenth Judicial District Court in Yellowstone County granted a request from five tribal governments and two Native American voting rights organizations to put a temporary hold on the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act. The groups claim the law, passed in 2018, wrongfully imposed negative and extreme restrictions on efforts to collect ballots throughout the state.

Judge Fehr found that there was merit to the group’s claims and ordered to the state to halt enforcement of the law pending further hearings on the matter.

Alora Thomas-Lundborg, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, said this decision is a strong win for voting rights.

“This ruling puts the brakes on a law that made it virtually impossible for many Native Americans to vote in Montana,” Thomas-Lundborg said in a statement. “It is a victory for voters.”

Wednesday’s ruling comes after the tribal groups sued Montana state officials in March, alleging the law makes it unnecessarily challenging for those living in rural areas, such as Native Americans on tribal land, to participate in elections.

The groups specifically took issue with how BIPA changed ballot-collector regulations. Under previous standards, ballot collectors in Montana could pick up and deliver to election officials around 85 ballots per collector.

The groups say that this is a vital practice for many Native Americans, given the many that live in areas with limited access to mail services or transportation. These factors, the groups claim, make efforts that allow Native Americans to cast ballots by mail and work with get-out-the-vote organizations especially crucial.

Under the 2018 law, however, collections were limited to just six ballots per collector.

The law also imposed a potential $500 fine for those who sought to deliver ballots to the post office for their relatives or neighbors, a measure the group claimed can further discourage and disenfranchise Native American voters.

When the complaint was filed, Jacqueline De León of the Native American Rights Fund said that the restrictions failed to properly consider the kind of voting realities many Native American voters face.

“BIPA ignores the everyday realities that face Native American communities,” said De León in a March statement. “It is not reasonable to expect voters to drive an hour to drop off their ballot, so collecting ballots in reservation communities just makes sense. Criminalizing this behavior is unfair to Native American voters and does nothing to solve the real problem of mail not being picked up and delivered to Native homes.”

Montana state officials, however, claimed that the timing of the group’s request for a temporary restraining order calls the request into suspect. With a Montana primary election set to held in just a couple of weeks on June 2, officials argued that the temporary restraining order should be denied due to the groups waiting until the eleventh hour to request relief.

Judge Fehr was not convinced by this arguement. The judge pointed out in Wednesday’s order that given the timing of the original March complaint, state officials had at least two months’ notice that enforcement of the law was being challenged.

The judge further points out the defendants in this case did not actually provide much of a substantive argument stating why the temporary restraining order should be denied, with officials instead only suggesting that the request is largely untimely.

With no other arguments to consider, Judge Fehr said that temporarily stopping the enforcement of the law is called for.

Marci McLean, executive director of Western Native Voice, said that Wednesday’s ruling was a victory not just for voting rights, but also for organizers who now have the ability to continue with crucial get-out-the-vote efforts.

“This is a good day for voting rights and civic engagement,” McLean said in a statement. “While adhering to COVID guidelines to protect our communities and staff, our organizers can now continue their robust get-out-the-vote and ballot collection efforts on every reservation in Montana knowing that their important work will not be punished. And, most importantly, our organizers can continue to ensure that more Indigenous voters on rural reservations are able to participate in our democracy.”

In a release by Jeff Mangan, commissioner of political practices in Montana, officials acknowledged that Wednesday’s temporary restraining order will likely stay in place throughout the June primary.

Representatives from the Montana Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to request for comment.

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