Federal judge temporarily blocks Montana's confusing voter registration law

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge has temporarily blocked a Montana law that appears to require people to cancel all previous voter registrations before registering to vote in the state or risk facing criminal charges.

U.S. District Court Judge Brian Morris said Wednesday he agreed with plaintiffs who argued the law is vague and overly broad and could lead people to avoid voting for fear of being charged with a crime to register. Penalties include fines of up to $5,000 and up to 18 months in prison.

“The court’s ruling protects Montanans and their constitutional rights by ensuring that a simple act – registering to vote – does not turn Montana citizens into felons,” said Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the one of the plaintiffs.

Lawmakers who introduced the bill during the 2023 legislative session said they wanted to make it clear that people cannot double vote. This is already illegal under federal and state law.

The problem with the law, lawyer Raph Graybill said Thursday, is that it does not provide a clear process for canceling previous registrations.

“The basic principle is that if you're going to commit a crime, the rules have to be clear enough so that people don't become criminals, and this law doesn't meet that requirement,” said Graybill, who represents Montana public officials and the Public Research Group Interest. Both plaintiffs said the law would hinder their efforts to register new voters.

The lawsuit was filed last September against Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus. The Attorney General's Office defends the state. Knudsen's press secretary, Chase Scheuer, said the agency is reviewing the order to determine next steps.

The current voter registration form requires voters to indicate their prior registration, but the new law is not clear whether providing that information satisfies a person's responsibility to opt out, said Graybill, the vice president of Ryan Busse, who is the nominee of Democrats is running for governor in the June primary.

Election officials in Montana can notify officials in other counties if a voter's registration changes. But Montana is not part of a national database that would allow it to notify other states of new voter registrations, election officials said.

The state denied the injunction request on the grounds that it was not enforcing the law.

Graybill said the plaintiffs' response was: “The fact that you don't enforce an unconstitutional law doesn't make it unconstitutional.”

Enforcement of the law is blocked until the case goes to trial, Morris wrote.

Anna Harden

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