Montana judge blocks law restricting absentee ballot collection

The Associated Press

Updated: Tribes, the ACLU and advocacy groups had sued to stop the 2018 law, arguing it disproportionately harms Native Americans who live in rural areas and rely on others to collect and drop off their ballots

AMY BETH HANSON
Associated Press 

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — With the state's primary elections less than two weeks away, a Montana judge temporarily blocked a voter-approved law that restricts the collection of absentee ballots, the ACLU of Montana said Wednesday.

The temporary restraining order affects the law passed by voter referendum in 2018 called the Ballot Interference Protection Act, which limits one person to turning in a maximum six absentee ballots.

"While adhering to COVID guidelines to protect our communities and staff, our organizers can now continue their robust get-out-the-vote and ballot collection efforts on every reservation in Montana knowing that their important work will not be punished," said Marci McLean, executive director of the group Western Native Voice.

Primary election ballots are due in election offices by June 2.

District Judge Jessica Fehr scheduled a hearing on May 29 in Billings on whether to lift the restraining order or grant a preliminary injunction preventing officials from enforcing the law.

The ACLU, Native American tribes and advocacy groups had sued to block the 2018 law, arguing that it disproportionately harms American Indians who live in rural areas and rely on others to collect and convey their ballots to elections offices or post offices.

Rural Native Americans may not have home mail service and also have difficulty getting to polling sites due to limited hours, unreliable roads, lack of access to a vehicle and limited money to buy gas, the complaint argued.

"Native American voters in the upcoming primary can now use ballot collection to overcome the outrageous distances Native Americans must travel to cast a ballot," said Jacqueline De Leon, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

The referendum was placed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2017 and 64% of voters approved it in 2018. The initial intent of the law was to give citizens the legal backing to call law enforcement if someone was badgering them for their ballot, said state Sen. Al Olszewski of Kalispell, who sponsored the legislation

He said the law was in place for two years and while a challenge was filed in March, the request for the temporary restraining order wasn't filed until May 1 — a week before ballots were mailed.

"I guess the timing of the challenge to me is suspicious of election tampering by judicial fiat," he said.

He also argued the law doesn't harm tribal members.

"If you can get your ballot in the mail you can deliver it back in the mail," said Olszewski, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

Election administrators in three counties told a state legislative committee in February that the law was frustrating electors, suppressing votes and is easily bypassed because people could collect absentee ballots and mail them rather than drop them off.

The plaintiffs had argued the law didn't make it clear that groups could collect ballots and mail them without legal repercussions.

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This version has been updated to add reaction from the bill sponsor.

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