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Emergency changes to election laws now require Legislature's consent

Emergency changes to election laws now require Legislature's consent

If the governor decides an emergency unfolding in Montana requires a temporary change to the state’s election laws — like when former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock allowed counties to hold mail ballot-only elections last year — it’s going to require the Legislature’s say-so from now on.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte on Friday signed into law House Bill 429, requiring a majority of lawmakers in both the House and Senate to approve of any emergency suspensions of the election laws in the state. If the Legislature isn’t in session at the time, the new law requires the Secretary of State to poll lawmakers on the proposed change in election laws within three days of the governor’s request.

The measure was sponsored by Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, and was brought as a response to Bullock’s decision to allow all-mail primary and general elections in 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic. All but a handful of Montana’s 56 counties opted to hold their elections by mail ballots only.

Republicans objected to Bullock's move at the time, and filed legal challenges to the then-governor’s directive that were ultimately unsuccessful.

Sen. Doug Kary, a Billings Republican who carried the bill in the Senate, argued that the measure simply restores the Legislature’s authority over lawmaking — particularly election laws.

“We are required by federal law and by the state Constitution to be in charge of the elections — our body, the legislative body, not the executive body,” Kary said during the bill’s April 15 debate on the Senate floor. “If we do not vote for this, we are not fulfilling our obligations and the oath we took to uphold that constitution.”

Democrats opposed the bill. Missoula Sen. Bryce Bennett called it “short-sighted” and said that while there were legitimate concerns about executive overreach, the measure doesn’t account for the need to respond quickly to sudden emergencies like wildfires, train wrecks or chemical spills that could block access for voters based on their location.

“These things happen. There are emergencies that requires us to make sure no one is left out of their democracy,” Bennett said. “… The problem is that this says no changes for any emergency, and even when it says the Legislature can be consulted in three days, what happens if the election is in two days? Or one day? Is the Legislature going to be able to chime in soon enough?”

The bill is one of several pieces of legislation introduced this past session that aimed to curtail the powers of the governor and other authorities during emergencies.

HB 429 passed on a party-line vote in the Senate last month, although it had picked up some Democratic support when it passed the House in February. It became effective upon being signed by Gianforte.

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