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Two voting law bills passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte this spring are being challenged in Yellowstone County district court. The ACLU of Montana and the Native American Rights Fund filed the suit Monday on behalf of several Native voting rights organizations and four Montana tribal communities, arguing that the new laws will disproportionately disenfranchise Native voters in the state.

“Native people have been fighting for the right to vote and fair and equal access to the polls for the last 75 years,” Ronnie Jo Horse, executive director of Western Native Voice, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “We are now in 2021, and instead of dismantling barriers to the polls for citizens we serve, some Montana legislators have quickly built them back up even though a Montana court previously ruled the obstacles created for Indigenous voters ‘are simply too high and too burdensome to remain the law.’”

The two bills at the heart of the lawsuit are House Bill 176, which eliminates same-day voter registration, and House Bill 530, which prohibits people from distributing or collecting mail-in ballots from voters if they’re paid to do so. ACLU of Montana Legal Director Alex Rate told Montana Free Press that the latter bill bears a striking resemblance to the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, or BIPA. Montana voters approved BIPA as a ballot measure in 2018, establishing restrictions on who can collect ballots from voters and setting a six-ballot limit on those collections. BIPA was struck down by a district court judge in Billings last year in a lawsuit filed by the same organizations pursuing the current litigation. Another legal challenge brought against BIPA by the Montana Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee resulted in a similar ruling.

“Frankly, it’s a real head-scratcher that less than a year after not one but two district courts struck down BIPA as unconstitutional, that we’re back in court re-litigating some very similar issues.”

ACLU of Montana Legal Director Alex Rate

Given the history of the issue, Rate said, HB 530 constitutes “nothing more than animus toward Native Americans.” He argued that the new law is actually more restrictive than BIPA in that it bars anyone from accepting payment for collecting ballots — a get-out-the-vote strategy that the nonprofits involved in the suit, Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote, employ to help tribal members overcome various barriers to casting their votes.

“Frankly, it’s a real head-scratcher that less than a year after not one but two district courts struck down BIPA as unconstitutional, that we’re back in court re-litigating some very similar issues,” Rate said.

In an emailed statement to MTFP Tuesday, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen responded to the latest litigation by saying her office would stand by the new laws. Jacobsen requested several successful election law proposals this year, including HB 176.

“The voters of Montana spoke when they elected a Secretary of State that promised improved election integrity with voter ID and voter registration deadlines, and we will work hard to defend those measures,” Jacobsen said.

Gianforte previously defended HB 176 and several other changes to state election law, stating after an April bill signing ceremony that “Montana has a long history of secure, transparent elections, setting a standard for the nation. These new laws will help ensure the continued integrity of Montana’s elections for years to come.”

Monday’s filing is the second lawsuit to challenge HB 176 since Gianforte signed the bill last month. The Montana Democratic Party filed suit in Yellowstone County to block that law as well as a new statute revising the types of photo identification voters are required to have when registering to vote and when casting their ballots at the polls. As with the ACLU’s new complaint, the party’s litigation argues that elimination of same-day voter registration infringes on the constitutional rights of Native American voters in Montana.

The party followed up with an amended complaint Friday that includes HB 530 in its legal challenge.

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.