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Secretary of State appeals rulings that struck down new election laws

Montana’s top election official, Christi Jacobsen, challenges lower court decisions that declared laws ending election-day registration, tightening voter ID requirements and banning paid ballot collection unconstitutional.

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News from Alex Sakariassen, Montana Free Press

MONTANA — Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court Tuesday challenging the rulings of a district court judge who overturned four election administration laws passed by the 2021 Legislature.

The notice marks the continuation of a legal battle that began in April 2021, just a day after Gov. Greg Gianforte signed two of the bills into law. Three separate lawsuits were eventually consolidated into a single case featuring a coalition of plaintiffs that included the Montana Democratic Party, Montana Youth Action and Western Native Voice, along with a cadre of other youth and Indigenous voting rights organizations. Over more than a year of litigation, those groups and their attorneys have argued that the rights of Montana voters were threatened by laws that ended Election Day voter registration, implemented new voter identification requirements and barred paid ballot collection by third-party groups.

Attorneys representing Jacobsen, the case’s sole defendant, countered that the new laws were necessary to safeguard election security and bolster voter confidence. This fall, Yellowstone County District Court Judge Michael Moses ruled all three of the laws to be “unconstitutional,” shortly after the Montana Supreme Court upheld his injunction barring Jacobsen from enforcing them while the litigation was ongoing. As a result of the litigation, none of the laws were in effect for the Nov. 8 general election.

“As promised, I am fighting for Montana’s widely popular and common sense laws that improve Montana elections,” Jacobsen said in a statement sent via email by her office Wednesday. “I remain dedicated to protecting these laws from the out-of-state liberal machine as I fight to make our elections secure and accessible for all Montanans.”

Jacobsen’s appeal also extends to a fourth law challenged in the case, which prohibited county election officials from distributing ballots to people who were too young to vote but would turn 18 years old by Election Day. Moses struck the law down in July in a separate order.

Reached Wednesday, Upper Seven Law Executive Director Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, whose Helena-based firm represented youth plaintiffs in the case, said her clients would “not back down” from the legal fight.

“It is disappointing that the Secretary continues to expend resources defending laws that they were unable to support with factual evidence in the court below,” she wrote. “Nevertheless, youth plaintiffs remain confident that the district court’s extremely detailed and careful decision will be upheld because the Montana Constitution protects voters from senseless and onerous voting requirements.”

In September, Montana Free Press filed a public records request with the Secretary of State’s office seeking documentation of legal expenses incurred as a result of this case and other litigation. MTFP is still awaiting word on the status of a legal review of that request.

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