Ruling says 18-year-olds must be allowed to access their ballots
News from Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, Upper Seven Law
BILLINGS — Judge Moses of the Thirteenth Judicial District Court held Wednesday that House Bill 506, which restricts ballot access for voters who turn 18 in the month before Election Day, violates the Montana Constitution.
Youth plaintiff groups, Montana Youth Action, Forward Montana Foundation, and Montana Public Interest Research Group (MontPIRG) challenged this bill and two others last fall, alleging that the Montana Legislature had discriminated against the youngest members of the electorate. These bills weave a web of administrative challenges that deter and sometimes prevent young people from voting, denying the newest members of the electorate the systems they rely on for streamlined ballot access and election navigation.
Now one of these laws is declared unconstitutional and permanently enjoined. Even though the Legislature considered a nondiscriminatory version of the bill, the version that ultimately passed prevented election administrators from distributing ballots to young people until their 18th birthdays, even though they were qualified and eligible to vote just like any older Montanan. In other words, the bill made voting more difficult for newly 18-year-olds, but for no one else. The plaintiffs said this restriction violated the Montana Constitution’s right to suffrage, right to equal protection, and the guarantee that minors have equal access to all fundamental rights.
The Court agreed, writing: “The version of HB 506 that the Legislature ultimately passed arbitrarily subjects a subgroup of the electorate to different requirements and irrationally forecloses an avenue of voting available to all others in the electorate.”
The plaintiffs are represented in their ongoing suit by Rylee Sommers-Flanagan and Niki Zupanic of Upper Seven Law and by Ryan Aikin of Aikin Law Office.
“We are proud of the decision today,” said Scout McMahon, Initiatives Chair of Montana Youth Action. “It’s incredible to be part of the team that stopped an unconstitutional law from making it more difficult for young people to exercise their right to vote.”
“Young people’s participation in democracy is essential. Today, the Court affirmed what we already knew: restricting access to the ballot is an obvious wrong,” said Kiersten Iwai, Executive Director at Forward Montana Foundation. “Now, our newest voters can get involved at the earliest possible opportunity because they will have the same level of access to the ballot as all other Montanans. And that’s just what makes sense.”
“By restricting new voters’ access to their ballots, the legislature attempted to undermine fundamental principles of our democracy, and they did so in violation of the Montana Constitution,” said Hunter Losing, Executive Director of MontPIRG. “The Court’s decision does justice for all Montana voters.”