Montana counties must count all valid absentee ballots postmarked on or before Election Day, provided they are received by the following Monday, a District Court judge ruled Friday, in a significant change as the state's June 2 primary nears.

In his written order, Yellowstone County District Judge Donald Harris temporarily suspended a state law that says absentee ballots must be received by a county election office by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Montana's June primary election is being conducted by mail to avoid spread of the virus at polling places.

Harris' ruling brings absentee voters into parity with military and overseas voters, whose federal write-in ballots must be received by the Monday after Election Day.

The judge noted the differences in delivery times for mail-in ballots in various areas of Montana, as long as two weeks even, and said that disparity represents a significant burden to absentee voters.

He also seconded an order issued earlier in the week by District Judge Jessica Fehr, also of Billings, against enforcement of Montana's Ballot Interference Protection Act, which says one person can only turn in six absentee ballots and requires that person to submit a form verifying whose ballots they are returning.

Fehr's temporary restraining order came in response to a lawsuit filed by Montana Indian tribes and Montana Native Votes. That decision will allow organizers on Indian reservations to continue with traditional ballot collection efforts that help rural Native Americans vote.
Harris' ruling on Friday granted a preliminary injunction against enforcement of the same law. His decision came in a lawsuit filed by former state Sen. Robyn Driscoll of Billings, the Montana Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The state of Montana defended both laws, saying they are needed to prevent voter fraud and to provide for timely, accurate vote-counting and the prompt release of election results.