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Another lawsuit challenges ban on MT campus political activity

HELENA (KPAX) — Another lawsuit was filed Tuesday challenging Montana’s new ban on political activity on certain parts of state college campuses, calling the Republican-passed ban a “surgical attack” on the increased political power of young Montana voters.

The suit filed in federal court in Missoula said the “student organizing ban” is an unconstitutional restriction of free speech and the rights of voters younger than 21 and should be struck down.

Tuesday’s lawsuit, filed by the Montana Democratic Party, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s campaign organization and a University of Montana student, is the third lawsuit this year to challenge the new law. The other two suits were filed in state court.

The law, passed by the 2021 Legislature’s Republican majority, says a “political committee” cannot conduct any voter-ID, voter-turnout, voter-registration, ballot-collection or signature-gathering efforts at any state college dormitory, dining facility or athletic facility.

It also allows a $1,000 fine for each violation and says each day of a continuing violation is a separate offense.

Legislative Republicans inserted the language into a campaign-finance bill during a conference committee on April 27 and passed it a day later.

The attorneys for the plaintiffs include the Elias Law Group, a national firm active in voting-rights and redistricting cases. Its founder, Marc Elias, has served as one of the Biden campaign’s key lawyers opposing efforts by former President Donald Trump to overturn 2020 election results.

The suit noted that Montana had a record voter-turnout in the 2020 election and that voters aged 18-29 turned out at a level 40 percent higher than the 2106 election.

“Rather than celebrate this laudable increase in youth participation, the Montana Legislature chose instead to pass a suite of voter-suppression laws targeting young voters and limiting their access to the franchise,” the suit said.

The law imposes “arbitrary, vague and onerous restrictions on the rights of college students to undertake important political organizing efforts, engage in core political speech and otherwise fully participate fully in the political process,” the lawsuit said.

“By targeting only university residence halls, dining facilities and athletics facilities, the Legislature made clear its intent: preventing young, newly enfranchised Montanans from participating fully in the political process,” it continued.

The suit named as defendants Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, the state’s top election officer, and Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, whose office regulates political committees.