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A district court judge in Yellowstone County on Wednesday temporarily blocked four new election administration laws passed by the 2021 Montana Legislature that have been challenged by the Montana Democratic Party and a coalition of Indigenous and voter advocacy organizations.

In his order granting the injunction, Judge Michael Moses said the plaintiffs made a convincing case they would suffer “irreparable injury” by “the loss of constitutional rights” if the laws were not blocked for the remainder of the legal proceedings. The Montana Democratic Party, which has submitted hundreds of pages of declarations and expert testimony to support its position, hailed the order as a “win for voting rights.”

“These four GOP bills were a blatant and cynical attack on Montanans’ constitutional right to vote, specifically impacting young voters, Native voters, elderly and disabled voters, and voters who have trouble getting to the polls,” said Sheila Hogan, the party’s executive director, in an emailed statement. “You cannot pick and choose who can vote in a democracy.”

Helena attorney Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, who represents Montana Youth Action and several other youth-oriented voter nonprofits in the case, similarly referred to the injunction as a “victory for young voters and for all Montanans.” Ronnie Jo Horse, executive director for plaintiff Western Native Voice, said in a statement that her group will “continue to hold our elected officials accountable especially when it comes to voting rights for our Native communities.” 

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Alex Rate, legal director for the ACLU of Montana and an attorney in the case, called it a “good day” for voters and for “the sanctity of the Montana Constitution,” adding that the order “reaffirms the principle that the right to vote must be preserved for all voters, and that laws targeting Indigenous voters cannot be supported by flimsy and unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud.”

The four laws now on hold while the case proceeds are: House Bill 176, which ended Election Day voter registration; Senate Bill 169, which enacted new voter identification requirements; House Bill 506, which barred county election offices from distributing ballots to minors who would turn 18 within 30 days of an election; and House Bill 530, which outlawed paid ballot collection. Moses noted in his order that, on first impression, plaintiffs had made a case that all four laws “unconstitutionally burden the right to vote.” 

Moses’ suspension of the laws comes roughly a month ahead of Montana’s school board elections, and two months ahead of the 2022 state and federal primaries. Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, the defendant and elected overseer of Montana’s election system, opposed the injunction partly on the grounds that election officials had already worked to implement the new laws, and that suspending them would confuse voters and undermine confidence in the electoral process. Jacobsen echoed that position in an emailed statement responding to Moses’ order. 

“Wednesday’s decision defies Montana’s common-sense approach to running our elections,” Jacobsen said. “It’s impossible to undo the steps that have already been taken to implement these legislative changes, including direct voter communication, education, and outreach. I am disappointed the judge has sided with the beliefs from out-of-state attorneys funded with millions of dollars from the liberal machine, and I will immediately appeal the decision because Montana’s election integrity laws are under attack.”

Moses dismissed the concern in his order, stating that Jacobsen “has had notice that these laws were contested” since the Legislature began hearing testimony on them last session.

Senate President Mark Blasdel, a Republican, also criticized the injunction and its timing in a statement Wednesday.

“To block multiple well-crafted election integrity laws barely a month before ballots go out is judicial activism at its worst,” Blasdel wrote via email. “It’s no surprise that a liberal judge appointed by Democratic governors ruled in favor of his political allies instead of Montanans who support voter ID and secure elections.”

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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...