A federal judge on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit brought by Republican groups seeking to halt mail-in voting during Montana’s November election, calling the plaintiffs’ claims that voting by mail would lead to widespread fraud “a fiction.”
Last month, President Donald Trump’s campaign, the Montana Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee sued Gov. Steve Bullock and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, alleging that Bullock’s directive allowing counties to individually decide how to conduct their elections was illegal and that an all-mail election would lead to widespread voting fraud. A similar lawsuit later brought by Montana House Speaker Greg Hertz and Senate President Scott Sales was merged with the original lawsuit. Both lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court in Helena.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen rejected the argument and dismissed the case on the basis that the plaintiffs couldn’t provide any examples of voter fraud in Montana.
“Central to some of the Plaintiffs’ claims is the contention that the upcoming election, both nationally and in Montana, will fall prey to widespread voter fraud. The evidence suggests, however, that this allegation, specifically in Montana, is a fiction,” Christensen wrote in his ruling. “When pressed during the hearing in this matter, the Plaintiffs were compelled to concede that they cannot point to a single instance of voter fraud in Montana in any election during the last 20 years.”
The GOP groups also argued that Bullock’s move violated the U.S. Constitution and that only Montana’s Legislature has the authority to suspend state law to allow counties to hold all-mail elections. Christensen rejected both arguments, saying Bullock has the authority to allow mail-in voting under his emergency declaration powers.
Following June’s all-mail primary election, Bullock in August said the state would allow counties to individually decide how to conduct the November general election. He cited the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the risk of viral spread among crowds at polling places as justification for the directive.
In a statement following the ruling, Bullock said the decision should eliminate any concerns that election results will be tainted by fraud. Forty-six of Montana’s 56 counties have decided to hold an all-mail election, according to the statement.
“There is nothing more sacred in our democracy than the right to vote, and no duty of government more important than to keep its citizens safe,” the statement said. “I’m pleased that today’s decision will enable hundreds of thousands of Montanans to vote safely — in person or by mail — this coming election.”
Attorneys representing the Republican groups and lawmakers didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
President Trump has repeatedly claimed — including in Tuesday’s debate with Democratic candidate Joe Biden — that he may consider the presidential election results illegitimate because, he claims, mail-in ballots are ripe for fraudulent manipulation.
In addition to Christensen’s determination that there’s no evidence an all-mail election in Montana would be marred by fraud, county elections officials have also said that such claims don’t have merit.
In a July 24 letter from the Montana Association of Counties and the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders/Election Administrators encouraging Bullock to allow counties to hold an all-mail election, election administrators described the June all-mail primary as a success and added that it had been especially successful compared to elections in states that maintained in-person primary polling. They also noted security measures in place to prevent fraudulent ballots from being cast or counted.
Christensen said Montana has a long history of mail-in voting, with as much as 73% of votes cast via absentee ballots in some recent elections, showing that Montana elections officials can handle an all-mail election.
Absentee ballots will be mailed to people who requested one on Oct. 2. Counties that have chosen to conduct an all-mail election will mail ballots to registered voters on Oct. 9.
“There is no record of election fraud in Montana’s recent history, and it is highly unlikely that fraud will occur during the November 3, 2020 general election,” Christensen wrote in his ruling. “This is fact, which should provide comfort to all Montanans, regardless of their political persuasion, that between now and November 3, 2020 they will be participating in a free, fair, and efficient election.”
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