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Second Lawsuit Challenges Changes To Voter Registration Law

A second lawsuit has been filed seeking to block the state from enforcing a bill passed in the 2023 session that implemented new voter registration requirements that several organizations say violate both the state and U.S. constitutions.

The latest lawsuit challenging House Bill 892 was filed at the end of last month on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Montana against Attorney General Austin Knudsen, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, and Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus.

Attorneys for the group filed a motion Thursday asking a judge to issue a preliminary injunction blocking changes made under the bill.

They argue, like two other groups suing the same officials in federal court, the bill puts unconstitutional restrictions on voters and violates the group’s efforts to encourage people to register to vote.

Montana law prior to this year already laid out that “no person may vote more than once at an election.” The bill from Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, changed the language to say: “A person or elector may not vote in this state more than once at any election held in this state or vote in both this state and another state or territory in the same or equivalent elections, except in a special district election in which a person or elector is entitled to vote.”

The league contends in its filings that the changes in the law go beyond its stated purpose and are unnecessary because they require voters to deregister from a previous address and contain criminal penalties if a person does not meet the new requirements.

“We agree that voters should not vote twice in the same election, but HB 892 goes beyond penalizing double voting to threaten the act of registering to vote itself,” said League of Women Voters of Montana President Nancy Leifer. “HB 892 weakens democracy in Montana by discouraging voters from registering to vote. It also threatens the critical voter services work the League does for voters across the state.”

Attorneys for the league note that election officials have the duty of deregistering voters under federal law, while both state and federal law already prohibit double voting. Lawyers say the changes under the law would disproportionately harm already at-risk populations who have to change addresses often, including elderly Montanans moving into care facilities, military members, lower-income people, and Native voters.

The league’s lawsuit challenges the law under provisions of the Montana Constitution, while the federal lawsuit from the Montana Public Interest Research Group and Montana Federation of Public Employees that is pending challenges it under the U.S. Constitution. In the federal lawsuit, Mont-PIRG and MFPE have recently filed a motion opposing the Republican National Committee and Montana Republican Party’s motion to intervene in the case.

But each suit is challenging the law under similar claims that the new restrictions violate suffrage, due process and other constitutional provisions tied to the right to vote and to register more people to vote.

“Given the law’s recent passage, broad enforcement mandate, and legislators’ representations that HB 892 was enacted to be enforced, LWVMT and others are concerned that their activities could expose themselves and the voters they assist to criminal liability,” the motion for a preliminary injunction filed Thursday says.

The group is asking a Gallatin County District Court judge to grant an injunction to maintain the language of the law that was in place prior to this year’s legislative session. The League of Women Voters of Montana is being represented by attorneys for Upper Seven Law and the Campaign Legal Center.

“This law is unnecessary and cuts deeply into Montanans’ fundamental rights, and we look forward to joining the League of Women Voters of Montana to challenge it in state court,” said Danielle Lang, the senior director of voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center.

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