Court strikes down ballot harvesting law

The Montana Thirteenth Judicial District Court in Yellowstone County struck down a state law that prohibited anyone from collecting more than six ballot.

The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Montana and Native American Rights Fund filed the case, arguing that it restricted the right to vote for Native American voters living on rural reservations.

Western Native Voice v. Stapleton, filed in March, challenged the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act, adopted by voters in 2018, that prohibited anyone other than election officials; U.S. postal workers or others authorized by law to transmit U.S. mail; caregivers; family members; household members; or an acquaintance from knowingly collecting a voter’s voted or unvoted ballot.

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Caregivers, family members, household members and acquaintances would be limited to collecting no more than six ballots. Those delivering up to six ballots had to fill out forms and sign a registry when they deliver the ballots to an election administrator’s office. They’d also have to provide their name, address, phone number; as well as the voter’s name and address; and the individual’s relationship to the voter.

The court granted a preliminary injunction in July, temporarily blocking the law, according to the ACLU.

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The court decision will likely be challenged at the Montana Supreme Court.

When the law was being considered in 2018, Cascade County elections officials said it left questions in the process for them and also added time and expense to the process.

Rina Moore, Cascade County Clerk and Recorder, told The Electric that the ruling “will streamline the process immensely as folks will not be made to fill out the bright pink sheet that they have had to for several elections. The ballot interference prevention act was placed on the ballot to stop [political action committees] from going door to door and collecting ballots. All it did was make one more hoop for the folks that were dropping their ballots off, in person, to have to jump through. The fact that anyone could drop off numerous ballots at the post office made this law seem a bit ridiculous. There was also no teeth in the law that would allow for enforcement. Since the beginning, I have dubbed it the ‘Voter Suppression Act of 2018.'”

In the introduction of the order the court wrote, “the questions presented cannot be viewed through the lens of our own upbringings or own life experiences, but through the lens of the cold, hard data that was presented at trial about the clear limitations Native American communities in Montana face, and how the costs associated with…are simply too high and too burdensome to remain the law of the State of Montana.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote, Native American-led organizations focused on getting out the vote and increasing civic participation in the Native American community; and the Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of Fort Peck, Blackfeet Nation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, Crow Tribe, and Fort Belknap Indian Community.

The plaintiffs argues that the majority of residents vote by mail and rural tribal communities work with get-out-the-vote organizers who collect and transport ballots to election offices that would have otherwise been inaccessible due to distance, lack of transportation or other socio-economic barriers.

“These ballot collection efforts are often the only way Native Americans living on rural reservations can access the vote. BIPA would have effectively ended this practice, disenfranchising Native American voters en masse,” according to the ACLU.