While the number of young voters in Montana has nearly doubled over the last eight years, a slate of new bills passed by the Legislature could quash that surge in participation.

A new lawsuit looks to challenge the legislation in a trial that begins this week in Billings.

Montana Youth Action, Forward Montana Foundation and Montana Public Interest Research Group, or MontPIRG, filed a lawsuit last fall challenging the laws they believe restrict young Montanans’ access to voting.

“Complicated, burdensome laws land most heavily on young voters, not least because young adulthood is fraught with new responsibilities and opportunities,” Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, executive director of Upper Seven Law. “But young people know that elections matter, and when voting is straightforward, young people vote.”

Among the laws targeted by the suit is Senate Bill 169, which complicates voter identification requirements and limits the use of student ID. It also targets House Bill 176, which eliminates election day registration.

Youth Plaintiffs already won their challenge to House Bill 506, which prevented 18-year-olds from accessing their ballots until their 18th birthdays.

The complaint asks the court to invalidate the two remaining laws, saying they unconstitutionally burden Montanans’ fundamental right to vote without cause – and for any compelling reason.

In the first week of trial, Youth Plaintiffs will call Forward Montana Foundation’s Executive Director Kiersten Iwai, and Montana Youth Action’s founder Isaac Nehring, to testify about how these restrictive laws affect first-time voters, students, and other young Montanans.

Youth turnout in Montana has dramatically increased since 2014, when only 18% of voters under age 30 cast a ballot. That percentage rose to 56% in 2020—a proportional increase in youth participation that is among the highest in the nation.

The trial is expected to last two weeks.

Laws on trial:

SB 169

Senate Bill 169 is a law that complicates voter identification requirements, by creating a hierarchy that specifically downgrades student IDs to a second-class form of ID.

For the first time in Montana elections, SB169 requires student IDs to be paired with a second document. But other forms of ID—like a Montana concealed carry permit—suffice as standalone ID.

This blatantly discriminates against students, a population largely of young people—and often first-time voters who are less likely to have a Montana driver’s license, concealed carry permit, or other “first class” photo ID.

HB 176

House Bill 176 eliminates Election Day registration in Montana. Since 2005, Montanans have been able to register to vote at their polling place on Election Day, enabling thousands more Montanans to vote.

In 2014, Montana voters rejected an effort to dismantle Election Day registration. And election officials testified in committee hearings on HB176 that ending registration before Election Day would complicate their work. Nevertheless, the Montana Legislature chose to eliminate Election Day registration.

HB 530

House Bill 530 parrots a law passed in an earlier session that was  later struck down as unconstitutional.  HB 530 prohibits paid ballot collection.

But ballot collection is a lifeline to democracy for rural, indigenous, and young voters in Montana. HB 530 imposes severe burdens on organizations like Western Native Voice and MontPIRG and attacks the right of suffrage guaranteed in the Montana Constitution, making it more difficult for voters to get their ballots turned in on time.

Moreover, HB 530 was amended to include the provision prohibiting paid ballot collection at the last minute, without public input.

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