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Lawsuit seeks to halt on-campus campaigning prohibitions
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Lawsuit seeks to halt on-campus campaigning prohibitions

Voters cast their ballots

Voters cast their ballots at the Lewis and Clark County election headquarters in Helena on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

Democrats are challenging another recent change to Montana’s election statutes by Republicans in the Legislature, asking a federal judge to overturn part of a law that prohibits political groups from conducting voter drives or ballot collection efforts in public university dormitories, dining halls and sports facilities.

The state Democratic Party and the candidate committee for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., along with Macee Patritti, a 19-year-old University of Montana student, alleged in a complaint filed Tuesday that Senate Bill 319 amounts to a “surgical attack on the successful organizing efforts and increased political power of Montana’s youngest voters.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, names Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan as defendants.

Democrats argue in the complaint that the law violates college students’ First Amendment rights to free speech under the U.S. Constitution, as well as the right for those 18 or older to vote under the 26th Amendment. They also allege that SB 319 violates free-speech rights for political committees.

The complaint claims that the law will disproportionately harm efforts to turn out the vote for younger voters in the state, who tend to lean Democratic, and force those political groups to spend more on efforts to reach those voters and get them to cast ballots.

Patritti, who worked as a student intern for the state Democrats during the 2020 election, had helped with voter-registration drives on the Butte campus of Montana Technological University, according to the complaint, including in dining halls.

“But for the student organizing ban, Ms. Patritti would seek to conduct the same activities again in coordination with a political committee such as the MDP or Montanans for Tester,” the complaint states. “These activities would now be prohibited by the student organizing ban, injuring Ms. Patritti by restricting her ability to engage in core political expression protected by the First Amendment.”

The complaint also notes the fact that the portions of SB 319 it is challenging were passed without any public testimony. As introduced, the bill had been narrowly written to allow the creation of joint campaign committees, which allow donors to cut a single, large check to multiple candidates for statewide office.

But the sections addressing political activities on public college campuses — along with strict requirements for judicial recusals — were inserted late in the session through a procedural maneuver that allows lawmakers to tack essentially anything onto the bill, as long as it fits under the legislation’s broad title.

Included in the list of banned activities in university facilities are “voter identification efforts,” a term the complaint criticizes for being undefined in state law.

“The possibilities cover a range of constitutionally protected activity,” the lawsuits states, “from commonplace election-related undertakings like door-knocking and one-on-one advocacy, to information about how to acquire sufficient identification to cast a ballot, to conversations about candidates, issues and initiatives supported or opposed by a particular political committee.”

The plaintiffs are asking the court to declare that portion of SB 319 unconstitutional, and to bar the office of the Commissioner of Political Practices from enforcing it.

Tuesday’s complaint is the third challenge to SB 319 since it was signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May, but the first to be filed in federal court.

The first challenge was filed in Gallatin County District Court by the state Board of Regents and the Montana Federation of Public Employees, and is challenging the same portion of the legislation, along with a pair of other bills passed during the last legislative session. The other challenge, filed in Lewis and Clark District Court by the local county attorney, a criminal defense association and several private lawyers, is asking a judge to throw out the entire bill on account of the last-minute changes it underwent.

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