HELENA—The state Supreme Court on Wednesday denied a request by unions and other groups to remove from the 2014 ballot a legislative referendum that, if approved, would end the ability of Montanans to register to vote on Election Day.
In a 5-1 decision, with Justice Mike Wheat dissenting, the court rejected the attempt by unions and others to have the court declare Legislative Referendum 126 legally deficient and void and to strike it from the ballot.
The court did order Attorney General Tim Fox to revise the “statement of purpose and implication” for the referendum to clarify that the National Voter Registration Act does not require elimination of Election Day voter registration. The bill title said the referendum was to ensure compliance with the federal law.
Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Mike McGrath said although the title of LR-126 may not have been the best conceivable statement, “we are reluctant to take the extraordinary step of nullifying its placement on the ballot.”
Citing the state Supreme Court precedents, McGrath said, “these principles counsel in favor of allowing the measure to proceed to a vote.”
If approved by voters, the referendum would cut off voter registration at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, which is on a Tuesday.
Since the 2006 elections, Montanans have been able to register up until 8 p.m. on Election Day.
In his dissent, Wheat said he would have granted the motion to strike LR-126 from the ballot.
“It is undeniable that same-day voter registration has absolutely nothing to do with compliance with the NVRA (National Voter Registration Act),” Wheat said. “Thus, the statement in the title of LR-126 to the contrary is a fatal defect that cannot be cured.”
LR-126 was passed by the Republican majorities in the 2013 Legislature over the strong opposition of Democrats. Referendums that are passed by the Legislature go directly on the ballot and are not subject to a governor’s signature or veto.
In response to the decision, Fox’s spokesman John Barnes said, “Attorney General Fox appreciates that state Supreme Court has honored Montana voters’ constitutional right to engage in direct democracy through the referendum process by allowing LR-126 to remain on the ballot.”
The State Bureau was unable to reach Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT union, the lead plaintiff in the challenge, for a comment.
Other groups that joined the MEA-MFT in the challenge were the Montana AFL-CIO, Montana Public Employees Association, Montana Human Rights Network, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Montana Women Vote and Western Native Voice.