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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Groups sue over rejected signatures for state ballot measures

A voter drops off mail-in ballots at the Yellowstone County Court House June 2, 2020.
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio

Groups backing measures on abortion access and election reform sued Montana’s Secretary of State Wednesday. They claim the state is illegally rejecting some signatures on ballot petitions

Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights says Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is instructing county election officials to throw out petition signatures from people who fall on the state’s inactive voter list.

The group argues the signatures of people who are registered to vote but haven’t cast a ballot recently should still count. Akilah Deernose leads ACLU of Montana and represents the group backing the abortion-access ballot initiative.

“You don’t lose your right to vote, or to have a say, just because you registered to vote and then missed an election or two,” Deernose said. “That is not how our democracy functions.”

The dispute comes as counties across the state verify tens of thousands of signatures for ballot initiatives, including one on abortion access, and two proposing changes to Montana’s election procedures.

Lewis and Clark County election supervisor Connor Fitzpatrick says the guidance on inactive voters is new this election cycle and came after counties had already begun counting signatures.

“It was a bit of a surprise across the board, I’d say,” Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick says it’s unclear how many signatures may now be thrown out.

Backers of the abortion access petition say they submitted nearly double the more than 60,000 signatures needed to put the amendment on the ballot.

Lawyers for Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights in a letter demanded Secretary Jacobsen reverse the guidance. But, the secretary’s chief legal counsel Austin James declined. In a response letter, he said Montana law requires people to have up-to-date voter registration for their petition signature to count.

County election offices have until July 19 to count petition signatures.

The lawsuit filed by Montanans for Election Reform says “thousands” of signatures could be deemed invalid due to the secretary’s new guidance. The plaintiffs are asking a Lewis and Clark County District Court judge to restore signatures from inactive registered voters.

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