Montana Secretary of State SOS
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is now facing a fourth lawsuit over new election laws passed this spring. The latest legal challenge was filed Thursday by a trio of state-based voting rights organizations — Montana Youth Action, the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) and the Forward Montana Foundation.

In their complaint, filed in Yellowstone County District Court, the groups allege that three bills approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte will restrict voting access for young Montanans. Senate Bill 169 imposed several changes to voter identification regulations, including a requirement that student IDs be accompanied by a second form of identification. House Bill 176 eliminated Election Day voter registration in the state, and House Bill 506 prohibits counties from distributing mail ballots to people who don’t meet residency and age requirements at the time of mailing, but who will be eligible to vote on Election Day. The complaint refers to the three bills collectively as a “cocktail of voter suppression measures that land heavily on the young” and requested that all three be ruled unconstitutional.

“Young Montanans are engaged and eager to participate in civic life,” said Scout McMahon, initiatives chair at Montana Youth Action, in an emailed statement announcing the lawsuit. “But when restrictions are placed on youth, the hurdles imposed make it incredibly difficult for us to make our voices heard. And when the voices of young people are stifled, our democracy fails to reflect the lived experiences of entire generations.”

Laws on Trial Montana Free Press

McMahon’s statement singled out HB 506 in particular as making it “impossible for certain individuals to receive their ballots in advance of elections.” Another accompanying statement from MontPIRG Executive Director Liz Albers said the challenged laws are “bills in search of a problem that doesn’t exist.” Albers reiterated the position taken by her organization on SB 169 during the legislative session, saying the provision regarding student IDs made it clear the bill was “aimed at young voters.”

Both SB 169 and HB 176 were drafted by the Legislature at Jacobsen’s request. In response to the latest lawsuit, a spokesperson for Jacobsen’s office emailed the following statement to Montana Free Press:

“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.”

Attorney Rylee Sommers-Flanagan with the nonprofit firm Upper Seven Law is representing the plaintiffs. Sommers-Flanagan is also representing a collection of Montana businesses in a lawsuit against Jacobsen and her predecessor, Corey Stapleton, alleging that the businesses were overbilled by the secretary of state’s office due to a software glitch.

Three other lawsuits were filed earlier this year challenging new state election laws. The first was filed by the Montana Democratic Party in late April, requesting that a Yellowstone County District Court judge overturn HB 176, SB 169 and House Bill 530, which prohibits people from distributing or collecting mail-in ballots if they’re paid to do so. A second lawsuit filed against Gianforte and the state in Lewis and Clark County District Court by the nonprofit Forward Montana (the 501(c)(4) arm of the Forward Montana Foundation) and several Montana attorneys seeks to overturn Senate Bill 319, a campaign finance bill that was broadened in scope during the last days of the session. The other lawsuit was filed in Yellowstone County District Court by a coalition of Montana tribes and Native voting rights groups including Western Native Voice, and challenges HB 176 and HB 530.

In early August, Jacobsen’s attorneys filed a response to the latter complaint refuting the plaintiffs’ allegations and asserting that “none of the challenged bills and/or statutes violates the due process, equal protection, free speech or the right to vote, under either federal law, the United States Constitution, Montana law or the Constitution of the State of Montana.” The response requested that the case be dismissed and the court award Jacobsen attorney’s fees and other costs associated with the lawsuit. The state has filed motions in the other two lawsuits requesting that they be dismissed as well.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...