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Sponsors of abortion-rights initiative spar with Montana Secretary of State over "inactive voter" signatures

Montana Secretary of State
Posted at 5:54 PM, Jul 09, 2024

HELENA — Supporters of a proposed ballot measure that would specifically add abortion rights to Montana’s constitution are blasting the Montana Secretary of State’s Office, accusing them of improperly rejecting signatures from their petitions to get the measure on the ballot this November.

Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights says it collected more than 117,000 signatures to get Constitutional Initiative 128 on the ballot this November. On Tuesday, the committee put out a news release, saying officials had changed their guidance and were now automatically rejecting signatures that MSRR believes are valid.

The dispute centers on “inactive voters,” who either haven’t voted in a recent general election or had a mail ballot returned as undeliverable, and who haven’t responded to follow-ups from their local election offices to update their information. Inactive voters don’t receive mail ballots, but they can reactivate their registration by going to the polls to vote, updating their address with the elections office or filling out a reactivation form.

MSRR said they filed public records requests and received emails from last month, in which the SOS office told county election administrators inactive voters would not be eligible to sign a petition. In another email, state officials said they were updating Montana’s election software to automatically reject signatures from voters on the inactive list.

Montana law says you have to be a “qualified elector” in order to sign a petition. In a letter to the SOS office, Raph Graybill, an attorney representing MSRR, said the state constitution says any citizen 18 or older “who meets the registration and residence requirements provided by law is a qualified elector” unless they’re in prison for a felony. He argued that should include people who are registered but are on the inactive list.

“These registered voters are clearly qualified electors, and they deserve to have their voices heard and their signatures counted,” Akilah Deernose, executive director of the ACLU of Montana and a spokesperson for MSRR, said in a statement. “We demand the SOS reverse the software change immediately and correct the associated unlawful guidance issued to county election administrators. Clear, legal guidance should be provided by the Montana Secretary of State to county election staff as soon as possible to ensure that the voice of every registered voter can be included in our democratic process.”

In Graybill’s letter, he said MSRR would go to court to seek a temporary restraining order if the SOS office didn’t change direction.

In a response to MTN, the Secretary of State’s Office said this wasn’t new guidance, and that they were simply following state law.

“The idea that a person on the inactive list be deemed a ‘qualified elector’ is inaccurate,” said Richie Melby, a spokesperson for the office.

The SOS office pointed to a section in state law that says an inactive voter remains on the inactive list “until the elector becomes a qualified elector,” and that they must follow the reactivation procedure “in order to become a qualified voter.” They said that indicated voters were not qualified electors until they took steps to reactivate their registrations.

The office also cited a 2021 decision from the Oregon Supreme Court, which said “because voters whose registrations are inactive are not eligible to vote, they are not ‘qualified voters’” and their signatures on initiative petitions could not be counted.

Any legal action on this issue could affect not only CI-128’s qualification, but also CI-126 and CI-127, a pair of proposed initiatives that would overhaul Montana’s election system.

It takes at least 60,000 signatures to get a constitutional initiative onto the ballot. County election officials are currently going through the petitions for these three measures to certify how many signatures are valid. They’re supposed to forward the petitions and the certified signatures to the Secretary of State’s Office by July 19. The SOS will then make the final determination of which measures qualify for the November ballot.