Failed voting laws prove to be costly
| October 9, 2022 12:00 AM
Last week a Montana judge ruled as unconstitutional a trio of new voting laws passed by the 2021 Legislature. The laws would have ended same-day voter registration, enacted new ID requirements for college students and restricted third-party ballot collections.
District Judge Michael Moses’ decision settles the case, for now, after the state Supreme Court offered the same opinion earlier in the year.
We couldn’t be less surprised by the outcome.
Legislators who backed these measures were warned long ago about the likelihood of costly litigation, and that the flimsy legislation would face deep judicial scrutiny.
Yet, they put on their blinders and forged ahead anyway — presenting no certain evidence that Montana’s election system is weak or in peril, or that these new laws are justified.
Judge Moses offered as much in his damning 200-page ruling.
“Voter fraud in Montana is vanishingly rare,” Moses wrote. He added that there were “significant signs” that the ballot collection law had a discriminatory purpose against Native American voters, and said the student ID law had been enacted by Republican lawmakers “to reduce voting by young people for perceived political benefit.”
The ballot collection law, in particular, has repeatedly been found unconstitutional, which Moses strongly noted.
Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen “presented no evidence that the Legislature considered what was unconstitutional about [the Ballot Interference Prevention Act] or made any effort to craft [the law] to remediate the access issues identified by the court,” he wrote.
“To the contrary, the one legislator that the Secretary called to testify at trial stated that he did not study impediments on Native American voters when ballot collection is restricted, did not read the opinions finding BIPA unconstitutional, made no effort to learn why BIPA was held unconstitutional, but nonetheless support [the legislation].”
What’s more, the legal cost to defend these unconstitutional laws is estimated at $1.2 million and counting. That figure easily surpassed the $100,000 budgeted for such legal affairs, according to a September report to the Revenue Interim Committee.
Local Republican legislators who supported these new laws have said they were not intended to restrict voting access, but rather were aimed, in part, at lessening the workload for local election departments so they can conduct a more secure election.
Overburdened and under-staffed election departments are a worthy concern. But wouldn’t it have been better for the state to disperse $1.2 million in grants so local election departments could hire extra helpers to assist with same-day voter registration and checking IDs, as opposed to lining another attorney’s pockets with taxpayer dollars?
It’s unclear if Moses’ decision will be the last word. Jacobsen’s office said after the ruling she is “not going to let down the fight,” but didn’t commit to an appeal.
If this type of legislation comes up again in 2023, we can only hope Montana’s elected officials will be more clear-eyed and prudent in crafting voting laws that can withstand intense judicial scrutiny. Otherwise, a portion of the projected $1.4 billion surplus might need to be carved out to pay the long line of attorneys hungry for yet another payday at taxpayers’ expense.