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Senate tables measure to repeal Montana ballot law judge found unconstitutional


Senate tables measure to repeal Montana ballot law judge found unconstitutional

Jan 30, 2023 | 6:35 pm ET
By Blair Miller
Senate tables measure to repeal Montana ballot law judge found unconstitutional
The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

Senate Republicans on Monday voted to indefinitely postpone a bill that would repeal the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, which was struck down by a Yellowstone County District Court judge in 2020.

The Senate voted down Senate Bill 31, sponsored by Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, on second reading in a 21-27 vote. Seven Republicans voted in favor of passing the measure. The bill was then indefinitely postponed in a 35-13 vote. The bill had been requested by the Commissioner of Political Practices.

The Ballot Interference Prevention Act limited the number of ballots to six that one person was allowed to collect from other voters and return and asked them to sign a registry if they were doing so.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana and Native American Rights Fund challenged the law in court, saying it made it more difficult for Indigenous people to vote. A judge agreed that the costs to voters were too high and found BIPA violated people’s constitutional rights to vote and to free speech.

McKamey again argued on the floor, as she did in the bill’s first committee hearing, that since BIPA was found to be unconstitutional, and the state did not appeal that ruling, lawmakers should repeal the law.

The Montana Legislature referred BIPA to voters during the 2017 session, and it was passed by 64% of voters in 2018.

Senate Republicans, including Sens. Theresa Manzella, Mark Noland, John Fuller and Mike Cuffe, argued on the floor Monday that they feel voting against the measure respects “the will of the people,” as Manzella put it, and that the law should stay on the books despite the fact it cannot be enforced.

Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, said she believed it was confusing for Montanans to have law on the books that are not constitutional because they might think it can still be enforced.

“To me, that doesn’t make any sense at all,” she said.

Sen. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, said lawmakers should vote against the bill and keep BIPA on the books until at least next session as the U.S. Supreme Court decides the Moore v. Harper case.

That cases involves involves a gerrymandered North Carolina redistricting map struck down by the state Supreme Court and the “independent state legislature theory” in which legislatures have the sole authority to set rules regarding federal elections, over which they claim state courts and constitutions have no bearing.

McKamey responded, saying the bill simply repealed the statute, which she called “cold clutter” because it is unenforceable.

Afterward, McKamey told the Daily Montanan she was not confident the measure would pass the Senate after four Republicans voted against it in the State Administration Committee last week.

She said she believed those who spoke and voted against the bill were “grandstanding” and that some of the opposition to the measure came from lawmakers who were not pleased with former Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan.

The Republicans who voted in favor of the measure were Sens. McKamey, Steve Fitzpatrick, Walt Sales, Dan Saloman, Jason Small, Terry Vermeire and Jeffrey Welborn.