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Judge blocks law that prevented absentee ballot collection

Judge blocks law that prevented absentee ballot collection

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HELENA — With the state's primary elections less than two weeks away, a Montana judge temporarily blocked a voter-approved law that restricts the collection of absentee ballots, the ACLU of Montana said Wednesday.

The temporary restraining order affects the law passed by voter referendum in 2018 called the Ballot Interference Protection Act that limits one person to turning in a maximum six absentee ballots.

"While adhering to COVID guidelines to protect our communities and staff, our organizers can now continue their robust get-out-the-vote and ballot collection efforts on every reservation in Montana knowing that their important work will not be punished," said Marci McLean, executive director of the group Western Native Voice.

Primary election ballots are due in election offices by June 2.

District Judge Jessica Fehr scheduled a hearing on May 29 in Billings on whether to lift the restraining order or grant a preliminary injunction preventing officials from enforcing the law.

The ACLU, Native American tribes and advocacy groups had sued to block the 2018 law, arguing that it disproportionately harms American Indians who live in rural areas and rely on others to collect and convey their ballots to elections offices or post offices.

Rural Native Americans may not have home mail service and also have difficulty getting to polling sites due to limited hours, unreliable roads, lack of access to a vehicle and limited money to buy gas, the complaint argued.

"Native American voters in the upcoming primary can now use ballot collection to overcome the outrageous distances Native Americans must travel to cast a ballot," said Jacqueline De Leon, staff attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

The ballot referendum was placed by the Republican-led Legislature in 2017. Lawmakers who backed the issue said it would eliminate potential voter intimidation and fraud by ballot collectors.

Election administrators in three Montana counties told a state legislative committee in February that the law was frustrating electors, suppressing votes and is easily bypassed because people could collect absentee ballots and mail them rather than drop them off.

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