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Voting restrictions; transgender athletes; the GOP's 'Putin wing'; Bob Campbell's proud legacy

New voting restrictions aren't likely to go into effect prior to the June primary. A.G. Knudsen threatens another lawsuit, this time over transgender athletes. Rep. Rosendale disses Ukrainian president Zelensky. And Bob Campbell, a co-author of the preamble to Montana's Constitution, leaves a proud legacy.

Campaign Beat is Montana Public Radio's weekly political analysis program. It's hosted by Sally Mauk and features Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels and Rob Saldin of the University of Montana’s Mansfield Center and Political Science Department. Lee Banville, University of Montana School of Journalism professor of political reporting, is sitting in for Rob this week.

Sally Mauk Holly, a district court judge this week granted a preliminary injunction that temporarily blocks four laws passed by the last Legislature. And those laws would have added new restrictions on voting. Republican supporters say they're needed to prevent voter fraud. Opponents argue they're aimed at limiting who gets to vote.

Holly Michels These are changes that would have done things like end same-day voter registration in Montana. The other laws or part of this lawsuit would limit what can be used as ID at the polls, also put limits on who can collect and return ballots for other people, and then also stop absentee ballots from being mailed out to new voters who would be 18 and able to vote on Election Day, but not when the ballots would have been sent out.

During the legislative session we saw Republicans say that these laws were necessary to ensure the state's elections were free from fraud, but when they were pressed during the session, they didn't actually have examples of fraud in the state's election or any fraud specific to the issues that these new laws aimed to address. And that's something that Judge Michael Moses from Billings referenced in his order when he issued a preliminary injunction.

The plaintiffs in these cases included a coalition of tribes, voting rights groups and Democrats. And at a hearing earlier this year, they argued that these new laws disproportionately affect the people they represented. You know, looking at something like ballot collection limitations, they said that people living on reservations or in rural areas were more affected by this because they don't have the same kind of access to mailing in their ballot or to get to a polling place as people in more urban areas might do. Things like voter identification, the requirement there, it changed it so that student photo IDs no longer counted on the state's list of acceptable photo identification. So students argued that law was pretty specifically targeted at them. On same-day voter registration you had the secretary of state who backed all this legislation last year. Her office argued that ending same-day voter registration would ease workload for election officials who are already pretty busy on Election Day. But again we heard arguments, you know, people living in rural areas, on reservations, you know, would have the option to make a single trip to both register and vote, instead of multiple trips, really helps travel time away from work.

So we did hear after the judge's order, Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen said that she would appeal this preliminary injunction. But I think, you know, unless we see a really fast decision from Moses on the final outcome of these cases, or the state Supreme Court taking up pretty quick action on Jacobsen's appeal once it's filed, pretty fair to expect that these laws will still be on hold during the primary election, which is June 7th, and ballots get sent out for that in the first part of May.

Sally Mauk Lee, the Republican argument that these laws are needed to prevent voter fraud ring especially hollow in Montana, which, as the judge pointed out, has had virtually no issues with voter fraud or election security. And you couple that fact with the other fact, as Holly mentioned, that the voters most affected by the laws — Native Americans and students, for example — tend to vote Democrat. So the fraud argument is thin at best, isn't it?

Lee Banville It is. But the argument that Republicans have really been making around elections is broader now than just the fraud argument. It's always couched in the language of election security, and it's all predicated on this argument that people who register and vote that last day are overwhelmingly going to be Democratic, or people who use ballot collection groups are going to be Democratic and that this is really all about an election calculus where you're trying to make it harder for the people who aren't going to vote for you to vote. That has played out in other states.

I think one of the things that I've always found kind of strange also about the Montana argument, is the easier the voting is and the higher the voting turnout is, that has not gone well for Democrats. We saw the highest participation in years and the most votes in 2020, and we saw just horrible results for Democrats and amazing results for Republicans. And so it is interesting that there's such a focus on election integrity, election security, and we've actually started to see some Republicans start to scale back that language, because I think there's growing concern that if you hit these messages too hard and too often it might end up inadvertently hurting Republican turnout.

And so, you know, these questions in these lawsuits are a little bit more directed at groups that probably would vote more Democratic, but tied up in this larger debate about election security. It's interesting to watch the Republicans start to, like, sort of modify the way they're talking about some of that.

Sally Mauk Holly, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen is threatening yet another lawsuit, this time against the U.S. Department of Education over proposed changes to Title IX, which prohibits sex discrimination, among other things, in sports. Why is Knudsen, Holly, concerned about these proposed changes?

Holly Michels This all sort of started with an executive order from President Biden a year ago related to Title IX. And in that executive order, Biden said it's his administration's policy that the protections there also include protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That led the U.S. Department of Education to start a review of its regulations related to Title IX, and their proposed update to their rules is expected to be released at the end of this month. In this letter, Knudsen, where he's threatening legal action, he's arguing that the rulemaking process exceeds the department's authority. Knudsen is saying that when Title IX was written 50 years ago, the meaning of sex could only have been about biological distinctions between male and female. Gender and sex can overlap in some context and are sometimes used interchangeably, they're not the same. Gender is an internal and societal identity. It's not the same as sex, which refers to biological characteristics. In reporting, we often look to the Associated Press style guide, which notes broad public understanding in the use of these terms has changed over time over the last 50 years.

You know, Knudsen and other attorneys general are saying that they would bring legal action because of expected conflict between the proposed rules that we're seeing later this month, and legislation like Montana's House Bill 112 that passed last year. That bill bans transgender women from playing women's sports, and Knudsen wrote that that law would quote undoubtedly conflict with the department's intended rulemaking. Montana's law did actually get a last-minute provision put on it that would void it if it ever put federal funding at risk.

Sally Mauk Well, Lee fights over transgender rights and sports has become a new battleground in the culture war, but it's an old tactic, isn't it, stoking fears of difference and of the other?

Lee Banville Yeah, I mean, the idea of, I don't even like using a phrase like wedge issues, but that's what this is. I mean, it's almost like these issues become like Rorschach test, where for conservatives right now, they look at these questions of transgender athletes in sports, and it's couched in the language of fairness. And it's unfair to female athletes to compete against transgender athletes who identify as female. And so this becomes this, sort of, topic that is actually more divisive. The old wedge issues would have been something like, gay marriage. And, you know, we've had now what, nearly seven years of gay marriage in the United States, and it's much less divisive than it would have been 20 years ago. There's a lot less, sort of, consensus around questions like these transgender athletes. And what's really unfortunate is it does put a vulnerable group sort of as as the political football between these two sides that are arguing, you know, this is about protecting rights or this is about, you know, protecting fairness. And it really does take a vulnerable group and turn them into the, sort of, the big question mark, right? The big like, you know, what are we going to do about these people? And you know, when many of these young trans students are already struggling with their own, sort of, you know, mental health issues and sort of, you know, navigating a very difficult path for themselves to be suddenly the target of these debates, I think is is a really unfortunate outcome, but is, as you say, not a new tactic.

Sally Mauk Holly, Congressman Matt Rosendale made national news this week when he joined 60. Some other Republicans in the House, voting against a resolution supporting NATO. And the New York Times had an article this week on the "Putin wing" of the GOP. And they included Rosendale as among Republicans who seem to have a favorable view of the Russian dictator. The article also quotes Rosendale criticizing Ukrainian President Zelensky.

Holly Michels This was a non-binding resolution reaffirming Congress's support for NATO and support for shared democratic values. I reached out to Rosendale's office about this vote and they said that Rosendale voted against the resolution due to the creation of, what the resolution proposed, the creation of the Center for Democratic Resilience within NATO's headquarters. Spokesperson said that Rosendale thought that the purpose and work of the center was extremely vague and would "only add to NATO's bureaucracy and already significant budget.".

Like you said, Rosendale's name did show up in that Times piece. I think it's Republican Liz Cheney of Wyoming who had that term, the "Putin wing" of the GOP. And in that story, Rosendale is quoted as calling Ukraine's President Zelensky "a less than forthright president." We talked previously about Rosendale on votes related to the war in Ukraine. Back in March, he was one of just three Republicans that voted against another non-binding resolution expressing support for Ukraine. I think we've seen him vote with, sort of, this minority wing in his party several times. This is another pretty prominent instance of that.

Sally Mauk Lee, no one has done a poll, but I'm guessing the vast majority of Montanans are appalled by the Russian war on Ukraine. So my question, is Matt Rosendale hurting himself by appearing to maybe not share that view?

Lee Banville Well, I think actually he's, he's walked a really interesting line where he always has an argument for why he's doing this thing. And it's never, you know, 'I think Putin should win.' This latest vote, you know, I mean, it's 30 percent of the House Republican caucus that voted against it. And I think we're seeing more Republicans sort of push back, in pretty political ways, right? It's always couched in the language of of partisan politics for why such a thing is happening. It's never really couched in, you know, — although the New York Times couched in this language — that, that you're actually opposed to Ukraine. It's more that you feel like, you know, Rosendale is making the argument that the Biden administration isn't doing its job in other areas, or I don't trust them. And that is actually a message that's probably going to resonate fairly well with, you know, Republican voters who are pretty skeptical of President Biden.

Sally Mauk Lastly, one of the delegates to Montana's 1972 Constitutional Convention, Bob Campbell, died this week. He was the co-author with Mae Nan Ellingson of our Constitution's eloquent and much quoted preamble. And he spent the rest of his long life promoting and defending our Constitution. And Lee, I'm guessing Bob Campbell took a dim view of one Republican legislator's description of the '72 Constitution as a "socialist rag," and of talk that it should be rewritten.

Lee Banville Bob Campbell would be horrified by that language because he saw this Constitution as really an achievement of Montana to really express its values and its, its people's values in a way that truly did speak of Montana. And I think, you know, when you speak of, you know, the preamble or you speak of, you know, he's the author of the privacy right in the Constitution, and the healthful environment. I mean he, he was this sort of beacon of like what Montanans should expect for themselves if they're lucky enough to call the state their home. And he was incredibly proud of that document.

Sally Mauk Well, he left a great legacy with the '72 Constitution. And Lee and Holly, we're out of time. Thank you so much.

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Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, Sally Mauk is a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the Legislature to forest fires.
University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
Lee Newspapers State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels appears on MTPR's political analysis programs 'Campaign Beat' and 'Capitol Talk'.
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