BILLINGS — Montanans who turn 18 in the month before Election Day are set to be allowed to vote by absentee ballot, after a Yellowstone County Judge issued a partial ruling Wednesday in a case challenging the constitutionality of four controversial voting laws passed by the 2021 State Legislature.
The district court judge, Michael G. Moses, ruled it was unconstitutional to not issue 17-year-olds absentee ballots in circumstances where they would be 18 years old, and eligible to vote, by Election Day.
"(The law) needlessly forces one subgroup of the electorate to vote in person," Moses wrote in his order. "And impermissibly denies this subgroup access to an avenue of voting that all others in the electorate can avail themselves of."
Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen's office did not immediately respond to questions about whether her office would appeal the partial ruling.
Moses found neither side disputed the facts around 17-year-olds and absentee ballots, and therefore granted summary judgment on whether the law was constitutional.
However, Moses did not rule on the constitutionality of the other three voting laws, which ended Election Day voter registration, banned paid ballot collection and required voters to bring a secondary form of identification if voting with a student ID. Factual disputes over the "nature and extent of the burdens" those remaining laws place on voters as well other disagreements stopped Moses from issuing a judgment, he said.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the Montana Democratic Party, four tribal governments and several advocacy groups, including Western Native Voice, all of which sued Jacobsen over the voting laws passed in the last legislative session. Earlier this year, Moses granted a preliminary injunction preventing Jacobsen from enforcing the laws during the 2022 Primary Election, though the Montana Supreme Court later overturned the injunction.
The case originated from three different lawsuits, which Moses allowed to be consolidated at the request of the plaintiffs, which included the state Democratic Party, Western Native Voice, Montana Native Vote, the Blackfeet Nation, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Fort Belknap Indian Community, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, Montana Youth Action, Forward Montana Foundation and the Montana Public Interest Research Group.