The Montana Democratic Party and the campaign committee of U.S. Sen. Jon Tester filed a lawsuit against Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan Tuesday challenging a new state law that restricts on-campus voter registration and signature gathering activity.
The complaint, filed in federal district court in Missoula, alleges that Senate Bill 319 imposes “arbitrary, vague, and onerous restrictions” on college students’ rights to engage in political organizing efforts and political speech. The bill, which overcame bipartisan opposition to pass the Legislature in April, was amended in the final days of the session to bar political committees from conducting voter registration and signature gathering efforts in campus dining halls, dorms and athletic facilities. Gov. Greg Gianforte signed the bill into law on May 12.
Supporters of the amendment claimed during the session that the ban was necessary to protect students from being exploited for political causes. Opponents decried the provision as a direct assault on the Montana Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit that promotes student political engagement at the University of Montana, and as a threat to young people’s ability to register and vote. Tuesday’s lawsuit echoed the latter argument, noting that Montana’s 2020 election saw record-breaking voter turnout especially among young voters — a result it partly attributed to successful mobilization efforts conducted by the plaintiffs and other organizations.
“The Student Organizing Ban is a surgical attack on successful organizing efforts and increased political power of Montana’s youngest voters,” the complaint says. “By targeting only university residence halls, dining facilities, and athletic facilities, the Legislature made clear its intent: preventing young, newly enfranchised Montanans from participating fully in the political process.”
Jacobsen’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In addition to the Montana Democratic Party (MDP) and Montanans for Tester, the lawsuit names as a plaintiff Macee Patritti, a UM student and former MDP student intern who participated in a voter registration effort on the Montana Tech campus in 2020. The plaintiffs are represented by the Helena-based Meloy Law Firm and by the Elias Law Group, headquartered in Washington, D.C. and Seattle, which is currently involved in numerous legal challenges to new Republican-passed election laws across the country. The complaint asks the court to declare SB 319 unconstitutional and bar Jacobsen and Mangan from enforcing it.
SB 319 faces a separate legal challenge filed in Lewis and Clark County District Court by the nonprofit Forward Montana, which promotes youth civic engagement around the state. Another lawsuit, filed in Gallatin County District Court by the Montana Federation of Public Employees, MontPIRG and a coalition of individuals and university faculty associations, challenges the constitutionality of four bills passed this session including SB 319. That complaint lists Gianforte and Attorney General Austin Knudsen as defendants.
The state Democratic Party is also the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against Jacobsen in Yellowstone County District Court. That lawsuit challenges three other election administration laws passed this spring that ended same-day voter registration, imposed more stringent photo identification requirements on voters and restricted certain mail ballot collection activities.
This story was updated Oct. 13, 2021, to note that the lawsuit filed in federal district court in Missoula is the third — not the second — that challenges Senate Bill 319.
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