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Federal judge hears arguments in lawsuit over Montana "double voting" law

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Posted at 5:57 PM, Mar 20, 2024

HELENA — A federal judge heard arguments Wednesday, in a case challenging a 2023 Montana law intended to stop people from voting twice.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris held a hearing on MontPIRG and the Montana Federation of Public Employees’ request for a preliminary injunction against House Bill 892. Plaintiffs argued the law went much further than simply stopping double voting and could threaten legitimate voters with severe consequences.

Montana already had a law in place saying no one could vote more than once in a single election. HB 892 expanded that section of law, saying people can’t vote in “equivalent elections” in Montana and in another state, that they can’t “purposefully remain registered to vote” in more than one place and that they must provide their previous registration information when registering to vote at their new location. Anyone who violates the law could face felony charges, with maximum penalties of up to 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

Supporters of HB 892 said it was a response to an Arizona court ruling that found a voter hadn’t violated the law by casting an absentee ballot in one state and voting in person in another during the same general election, since the state elections didn’t share any candidates.

MontPIRG and MFPE sued over the law, saying it had created confusion and could hamper their organizing and voter registration efforts because they would have to put resources into informing people about the consequences of HB 892.

Aria Branch, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, called HB 892 “a legislative wolf in sheep’s clothing” Wednesday. She said they didn’t object to a law against double voting, but that the other provisions could limit people’s participation in the political process.

Branch said groups including students and workers like traveling nurses may have legitimate reasons to have registrations in more than one place, without ever intending to vote more than once. She said courts have to look at laws with more scrutiny when they can subject people to such serious criminal penalties.

“You can’t just stumble into becoming a felon,” said Branch.

The Montana Department of Justice is defending HB 892. Attorney Thane Johnson said Wednesday that the law was a justifiable action to address concerns that Montana voters have about election integrity – citing the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol as a sign of the mistrust some voters have in the system.

Johnson said the language referring to people who “purposefully remain registered” in multiple places should prevent someone from being convicted unless they deliberately evade the law. He said HB 892 has been in effect, including through the municipal election cycle last year, and there’s no evidence it’s slowed down voter registrations or otherwise interfered with political participation – so he argued the judge should leave the law in place to avoid changing the rules so close to the next election.

“We got through it; everything worked fine,” he said.

The Montana Republican Party and the Republican National Committee have also intervened in support of HB 892.

Morris took no immediate action Wednesday. He said he would release an order as soon as he could.

A second lawsuit, filed by the League of Women Voters of Montana, is also challenging HB 892 in state district court in Gallatin County.