A partially obscured view through an open doorway into an office. "Office of the Secretary of State" is prominently displayed. The edge of an American flag can be seen on the right side of the image.
The Office of the Secretary of State in the Montana State Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 26. Credit: Samuel Wilson / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

Back in 2021, Republican-led changes to Montana election laws produced a pitched legal battle, with critics arguing that new voter ID requirements and a ban on same-day registration made it harder to exercise one of Americans’ most fundamental rights. Now a similar challenge has emerged against an election administration measure passed by this year’s Legislature that puts stricter requirements on voter registration.

On Oct. 3, the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) filed a lawsuit in federal court in Helena alleging that this year’s House Bill 892 violates the U.S. Constitution. The law was framed by proponents as an effort to prevent individuals from voting in two separate locations during a single election — what it refers to as “double voting” — by requiring that they provide previous registration information when registering to vote in a new location in Montana. Failure to comply with HB 892 could result in a $5,000 fine, 18 months in jail or both.

Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, argued while carrying the bill that double voting is a “manipulation of the electoral franchise” that should not be tolerated in Montana. The measure picked up a smattering of Democratic votes in the House. 

In their court challenge, MFPE and MontPIRG counter that the new law goes much further than Montana’s previous ban on such activity, which simply stated that “no person may vote more than once at an election.” They also say they believe the new law isn’t clear enough about what information it requires would-be voters to provide and that the criminal penalties for failing to comply will “chill political expression in Montana by making it riskier for individuals to register to vote.” Taken together, the plaintiffs contend, that stacks up to a violation of the right to vote and the right to due process. They’ve asked the U.S. District Court in Helena to declare the law unconstitutional and to bar its enforcement.

Two of the three defendants — Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus — declined to comment on the litigation last week. A spokesperson for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, the third defendant, said Knudsen will “defend the law.” Knudsen’s office is expected to file a response to the complaint within the next month.


Montana Supreme Court revokes Rosebud coal mine expansion

The Montana Supreme Court has halted an expansion of a Westmoreland-operated mine that supplies the Colstrip power plant with coal. The court’s decision vacated an 8-year-old permit that allowed Westmoreland to pull 12 million tons of coal from the Rosebud Mine located in southeastern Montana.

Missoula again looks for answers to Brooks Street malfunction 

Walking across Brooks Street can be “daunting,” and a lack of bicycle lanes forces riders into traffic or onto sidewalks, safety concerns the city of Missoula is looking to improve in a new study, along with expanding transit options and alleviating traffic problems. The Transform Brooks – Connect Midtown project is part of an effort to encourage development and improve the standard of living in midtown Missoula.

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...