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Trial starts in challenge to new Montana voting laws

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HELENA – A trial is scheduled to start Monday in Billings in a challenge to three state laws that the Montana Democratic Party, tribal organizations and youth advocacy groups argue were aimed at making voting more difficult for Native Americans, young voters, the elderly and people with disabilities.

District Court Judge Michael Moses will hear arguments on challenges to laws passed by the 2021 Legislature that eliminated Election Day voter registration, changed voter ID requirements for college students and banned paid collection of voted ballots. The trial is scheduled to last 10 days.

Moses in April temporarily blocked the enforcement of the laws. But the Montana Supreme Court allowed two of the laws to remain in effect for the June 7 primary—ending voter registration at noon the day before the election and requiring proof of residency in addition to a student ID to register and vote.

Sheila Hogan, executive director of the Montana Democratic Party, has called the laws 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.”

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen requested the bills as Republicans around the country changed voting laws in the wake of the November 2020 election and false claims by former President Donald Trump and his supporters that the election was stolen.

The state argued the new laws were needed to reduce work for election workers on Election Day, reduce lines at polling places, reduce delays in reporting election results and to prevent election fraud.

But some Republican lawmakers made it clear they were trying to make it more difficult for college students to vote.

During debate on the student ID bill, Republican Rep. Jedediah Hinkle of Belgrade cited an election night in Gallatin County where a nonprofit group “not on our side of the aisle” bused students to the polls all day. By 11:30 p.m., Hinkle said, the line of voters extended from the second floor of the courthouse outside and around the block, stressing workers in the election department.

Youth voter turnout in Montana—the number of voters under age 30 who cast ballots—increased from 18 percent in 2014 to 56 percent in 2020, said Upper Seven Law, an organization representing Montana Youth Action and other groups challenging the new laws affecting young voters.

During the case’s hearing about the temporary injunction, the plaintiffs offered testimony from experts and election staff who said there has been no voter fraud in Montana pertaining to Election Day day registration, ballot assistance or the use of student IDs as voter identification.

Moses in April also temporarily blocked a law prohibiting 17-year-olds who pre-register to vote to receive ballots, through the mail or otherwise, until they turn 18, even if they would be eligible to vote on Election Day. He has since declared that law unconstitutional in a separate ruling.

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