HELENA — A federal judge in Montana on Wednesday rejected an effort by President Donald Trump's reelection campaign and Republican Party groups to block Montana counties from holding the general election mostly by mail, saying claims that such a system could be marred by widespread voter fraud is "a fiction."
"When pressed during the hearing in this matter, the plaintiffs were compelled to concede that they cannot point to a single instance of voter fraud in Montana in any election during the last 20 years," U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen wrote.
He added: "Importantly, Montana's use of mail ballots during the recent primary election did not give rise to a single report of voter fraud."
Nearly three-quarters of Montana voters have voted via absentee ballots in recent years and county election administrators have experience running such elections, Christensen added.
"Thus, there is no record of election fraud in Montana's recent history, and it is highly unlikely that fraud will occur during the November 3, 2020 general election," Christensen wrote. "This is a fact, which should provide comfort to all Montanans, regardless of their political persuasion, that ... they will be participating in a free, fair and efficient election."
Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, using authority under his emergency declaration due to the pandemic, suspended the state law that prevents general elections from being held via all-mail ballots.
All 56 Montana counties conducted the June primary by mail due to the pandemic and 45 chose to do the same for the general election. People will still have options to vote in person. Ballots will be mailed to registered voters on Oct. 9.
"There is nothing more sacred in our democracy than the right to vote, and no duty of government more important than to keep its citizens safe," Bullock said in a statement. "I'm pleased that today's decision will enable hundreds of thousands of Montanans to vote safely - in person or by mail - this coming election. Montanans can rest assured that our local election administrators will preserve the security and integrity of the election process."
Donald J. Trump for President, the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Montana Republican State Central Committee filed the initial motion to block Bullock's directive. They were joined by the Republican majority in Montana's Legislature. Another lawsuit by a county Republican committee, some candidates and voters was consolidated into the Trump campaign case.
Attorneys with the Consovoy McCarthy law firm in Arlington, Virginia, which represented the Trump campaign and the Republican Party groups, did not immediately return a phone call or emails seeking comment.
"While unsurprising, Judge Christensen's ruling is disappointing," said Spencer Merwin, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. "The U.S. and Montana constitutions are very clear: the state Legislature has the sole authority to determine the time, place, and manner of elections. Yet Gov. Steve Bullock -- the very person with the most to gain as a candidate on the ballot this November -- unilaterally rewrote election laws in a broader effort to benefit his U.S. Senate campaign."
Bullock, who is prevented by term limits from seeking reelection as governor, is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in a contest that could determine which party holds the majority in the U.S. Senate.
A federal judge in Nevada last week rejected the Trump campaign's effort to block a bill passed by the Nevada Legislature to offer an all-mail ballot in November, saying Republicans had not established standing for their lawsuit.
Trump also contested an all-mail ballot in New Jersey, where the Legislature passed a bill to allow ballots to be mailed to all active voters after the Trump campaign challenged the governor's order for the same. That case is pending in U.S. District Court.