HELENA — Two Montana organizations have filed suit in federal court, claiming that a new state law intended to stop people from voting twice goes beyond its goal and could threaten lawful voters.
MontPIRG and the Montana Federation of Public Employees are challenging House Bill 892, which adds more specifics to the state law against double voting. They argued the language in the bill might leave people open to criminal penalties simply for neglecting to cancel a previous registration – even if they never vote twice or intend to.
“You can do something that we've all done – move across different houses in the state, even move within the same county – and you run into this big problem,” said Raph Graybill, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
Montana already had a law in place saying no one could vote more than once in a single election. HB 892 expanded that section of law, saying people can’t vote in “equivalent elections” in Montana and in another state, that they can’t “purposefully remain registered to vote” in more than one place and that they must provide their previous registration information when registering to vote at their new location.
Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, sponsored the bill. During a House debate in this year’s legislative session, she said it was in response to an Arizona court ruling that said a voter hadn’t broken the law by voting absentee in one state and in person in another, since the elections didn’t share any candidates. Hellegaard also said there have been reported concerns about double voting across the country.
“Voting twice has generally been one of those ‘why bother’ crimes that are rarely prosecuted,” she said during the debate. “This bill will send a strong message: This type of illegal behavior and manipulation of electoral franchise will not be tolerated.”
HB 892 says anyone violating the law could face up to 18 months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $5,000. Hellegaard said during the debate that they intended those punishments to be on the lower end when compared with other states that have implemented this type of law.
In their complaint, plaintiffs said the language of the bill included too many ambiguities. For example, they questioned whether a voter would have to specifically contact their previous jurisdiction to make sure their name had been removed from the rolls, and whether a person could face criminal charges if they merely fail to complete the section on the voter registration form that asks for prior registrations.
“In sum, the scope of criminal liability is uncertain based on the plain text of the statute, and the stakes for honest mistakes are high,” the complaint said.
Plaintiffs argued the bill would have a chilling effect on people’s participation in the political system. MontPIRG and MFPE both said their organizing and voter registration efforts might be hampered, since they may have to divert resources to inform the people about compliance and possible risks of HB 892.
“The heart of what's the problem with this law is, on one hand, you've got really severe criminal penalties: $5,000 fine, 18 months in jail,” Graybill said. “On the other hand, you've got a real lack of clarity around what it requires.”
The plaintiffs named Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Attorney General Austin Knudsen and Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus in the suit. The state defendants have not yet filed a response to the complaint. They will have until later this month to do so.