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Court blocks limiting ballot collection


Last updated 7/8/2020 at 11:49am

A state District Court judge has blocked a Montana law passed as a referendum in the 2018 election that limited the collection of absentee ballots during an election.

Judge Jessica Fehr in Billings granted an injunction Sunday blocking the application of the Ballot Interference Protection Act, which the 2017 Legislature placed on the ballot and the voters passed in 2018, saying the law infringes on the right to vote guaranteed in the Montana Constitution.

Fehr wrote that the plaintiffs successfully showed that if a preliminary injunction were not granted, “BIPA would cause irreparable harm to Montana voters by preventing absentee ballot voters from voting with the assistance of ballot collection organizations.”

She wrote in her order that BIPA would significantly suppress voter turnout by disproportionately harming rural communities, especially individual Native Americans in rural tribal communities across the seven Indian reservations located in Montana.

She also wrote that the state in its defense of BIPA failed to present evidence that voters have been subjected to harassment and insecurity in the voting process or even a general lack of integrity in Montana’s elections.

“The court finds that BIPA serves no legitimate purpose, it fails to enhance the security of absentee voting, it does not make absentee voting easier or more efficient; it does not reduce the costs of conducting elections and it does not increase voter turnout,” Fehr wrote. 

She also wrote that the fact it was passed by voters does not legitimize the letter of the law — laws passed by referendum also must pass constitutional muster.

The injunction is in place until the state can prove that the law furthers a compelling state interest.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana and Native American Rights Fund sought the preliminary injunction, which imposed severe restrictions on ballot collection efforts that are critical to Native American voters, particularly those living on rural reservations, ACLU of Montana said in a press release.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote, Native American-led organizations focused on getting out the vote and increasing civic participation in the Native American community; and the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Crow Tribe and Fort Belknap Indian Community. 

The lawsuit, Western Native Voice v. Stapleton, was filed in the Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court in Yellowstone County.

The ruling can be seen on the ACLU website at  https://www.aclu.org/legal-document/pi-order-western-native-voice-v-stapleton .


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