Montana Republicans Wage War On Student Voting Ahead Of 2022 Elections

Four laws enacted this year amount to “a cocktail of voter suppression measures that land heavily on the young,” one lawsuit accuses.

Montana Republicans achieved unified control of the state government in 2020 by winning the governor’s race for the first time in 16 years. This allowed them to follow through on a longtime goal: making it harder for students and young people to vote.

This year, four bills were passed by the state legislature and signed by Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) that make it harder for students to register to vote, cast their ballots and register other students to vote. The bills ended Election Day voter registration, removed student ID as an acceptable form of voter ID, placed additional age and residency requirements on voters and banned voter registration efforts by political committees in certain university buildings.

The restrictive voting legislation in Montana comes on the heels of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn his 2020 loss to Joe Biden by lying about election fraud. Inspired by these lies, Republicans in several states have enacted new restrictions on voting, specifically targeted at communities they believe are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. In some states these restrictions have targeted Black and Latino voters. In Montana, the communities targeted included students and Native Americans.

Montana Republicans are targeting students, young voters and Native Americans because these communities have helped Democrats narrowly win statewide elections over the past 15 years despite the state’s strong partisan lean in favor of Republicans at the national level. Sen. Jon Tester, now Montana’s only statewide elected Democrat, won his three elections by between 3,000 and 18,000 votes. Former Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, won his two campaigns by 8,000 votes in 2012 and 19,000 in 2016. Tester is up for reelection in 2024.

State Republicans claim their new election restrictions are meant to enhance “election integrity.” But just like Trump’s election fraud lies, the new laws respond to no record of fraud or malfeasance in state elections. When a Montana state court ruled against Trump’s effort to block Montana counties from implementing mail voting in 2020, it noted that there is “no record of election fraud in Montana’s recent history.”

Montana youth groups are assailing the new laws as “a cocktail of voter suppression measures that land heavily on the young,” according to a lawsuit filed in October by Forward Montana Foundation, Montana Youth Action and MontPIRG, a voter registration nonprofit.

“When you look at each of these individually, alone, they look like they could be targeting students,” said Scout McMahon, a 17-year-old high school senior in Kalispell, Montana, and initiatives chair for Montana Youth Action. “But when you put them all together ― you have the age discrimination, the residency discrimination, changing specifically student ID while also introducing another form and eliminating Election Day registration. It’s a pretty express attack against student voters and youth voters as a whole.”

Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed four restrictive bills that are expected to make it harder for young people and students in that state to vote.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed four restrictive bills that are expected to make it harder for young people and students in that state to vote.
Tommy Martino via Associated Press

The most obvious change affecting students and young voters in general is the one that affects the whole population: the end of Election Day voter registration, also known as same-day voter registration.

While the elimination of Election Day voter registration falls on everyone equally, it will likely hurt young voters more. Political science studies show that people aged 18 to 24 move residences more often and interact with government agencies less than older voters. These factors add complexity to the process for people without prior voting experience, increasing the likelihood that they will choose not to register to vote and, therefore, not vote at all.

“People we have talked to while knocking doors didn’t know that they could go register,” Alexa Runnion, board chair of MontPIRG, said.

Between 1% and 2.3% of all votes cast in Montana elections came from voters who’d registered on Election Day. Many of these were students and other young voters helped by the get-out-the-vote efforts by youth groups and other political committees.

A 2019 study found that the implementation of Election Day voter registration by states increased the rate of youth voting by between 3.5 and 10.1 percentage points.

“This is a really big blow to Montana,” Kiersten Iwai, executive director of Forward Montana, said.

Montana introduced Election Day registration in 2006, and Republicans have been trying to get rid of it ever since. In 2011 and 2013, the Republican-led state legislature passed bills to repeal it, but both times Democratic governors vetoed them. In 2014, the legislature voted to put repeal on the ballot as an initiative. Voters broadly rejected it, with 57% of votes against.

Despite the popular support of Montana voters, Republicans took the opportunity to repeal same-day registration after winning the governor’s office in 2020. When the legislature debated the bill, Republicans raised complaints about student voters being bused to polling places where they could register to vote on Election Day.

“And those nonprofit groups ― and they were not on our side of the aisle ― what they were doing?” state Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, a Republican, said. “When they were 30 feet from the building, they were working all of those people with literature, pizza, heat lamps, and everything else.”

Republicans also removed student identification cards from the list of acceptable forms of photo identification for voting. At the same time, Republicans added concealed-carry weapons permits to the list of acceptable voter ID.

Students without another form of acceptable voter ID that shows their current address are now required to provide an additional piece of identification listing their name and an address, like a utility bill, pay stub or bank statement. Students and other young voters move frequently, and may be living in dorms or with roommates who have bills in their name.

“Even as a young professional when I was out of college, I wasn’t on a utility bill,” Iwai said. “I wasn’t on a lease. I didn’t have an official document that showed where I live. It’s all these different layers that make it so confusing.”

For Republicans, this just means that students shouldn’t vote in Montana elections.

“If you’re a college student in Montana and you don’t have a registration, a bank statement or a W-2, it makes me kind of wonder why you’re voting in this election anyway,” Montana House Speaker Wylie Galt, a Republican, said during the February floor debate on the bill.

Voters wait in line outside the Gallatin County Courthouse in Bozeman, Montana, home of Montana State University, Nov. 3, 2020.
Voters wait in line outside the Gallatin County Courthouse in Bozeman, Montana, home of Montana State University, Nov. 3, 2020.
Tommy Martino via Associated Press

On top of the elimination of Election Day registration and the elimination of student ID as an accepted form of voter ID, Republicans implemented new age and residency requirements targeting young voters by threatening legal sanctions against election workers.

This new law targets voters who turn 18 years old within 30 days before an election, forbidding election workers from providing any such voter with an absentee ballot prior to their birthday. These Montanans will be eligible to vote by Election Day, but are being denied access to the ballot of their choice due to their age.

The youth groups challenging this law argue that it violates the Montana Constitution, which guarantees that “the rights of persons under 18 years of age shall include, but not be limited to, all fundamental rights of this Article unless specifically precluded by laws which enhance the protections of such persons.”

Besides the new age requirement to obtain an absentee ballot, this law adds a residency requirement banning election workers from giving a ballot to a voter who cannot prove they have lived at their current address for at least 30 days.

“Barriers like this pretty actively discourage a student vote and for young people in general,” McMahon said.

Montana Republicans also targeted the ability of political committees to register students to vote on campus by banning such activities in dorms, dining halls and other campus buildings. For example, a student interning or volunteering with the state Democratic or Republican party can no longer door-knock in campus dorms or set up voter registration booths in certain campus buildings. A judge halted this law with a preliminary injunction as it faces a challenge in court.

All of these laws now face multiple lawsuits from youth activist and voter registration groups, as well as political committees, including the Montana Democratic Party and Tester’s Senate campaign committee, and other individuals and groups affiliated with Montana state universities.

Absent judicial rulings overturning them, the congressional passage of voting rights reforms in the Freedom to Vote Act, co-authored by Tester, would override some of Montana’s new laws, including the ban on Election Day voter registration and the new restrictions on student voter ID. The bill is currently blocked by a GOP filibuster in the Senate. Tester is one of three members of the Democratic caucus talking to colleagues about changing the filibuster rules to pass the bill.