Backers of ballot initiative to preserve right to abortions in Montana sue over signature rules

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Two organizations that gathered voter signatures to qualify proposed constitutional amendments for the Montana ballot — including an initiative to protect abortion rights — have sued the secretary of state’s office over changes made to the rules about whose signatures may be accepted after the signatures were gathered and while county election officials were verifying them.

District Court Judge Mike Menahan has set a hearing Tuesday in Helena on a motion seeking to block the changes and allow the signatures of inactive voters to be counted toward the number needed to qualify the issues for the November ballot.

County election officials must verify signatures and forward the totals to the secretary of state’s Office by Friday.

The lawsuit alleges county election officials have previously accepted the petition signatures of “inactive voters,” defined as those who fail to vote in a general election and who haven’t responded to efforts to confirm their mailing address. They can be restored to active voter status by confirming their address, by showing up to the polls to vote or requesting an absentee ballot.

Voter registrations can be canceled if an inactive voter fails to vote in two more federal general elections.

The signatures for the three constitutional amendments — including one to protect the right to a pre-viability abortion and another to eliminate partisan primary elections — had to be turned in to counties by June 21.

A week later, Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen told counties that they must reject the signatures of inactive voters. On July 2 the statewide voter database was changed to prevent verification of inactive voter signatures, something the lawsuit argues is unconstitutional.

Montana’s constitution says petitions may be signed by qualified electors, which it defines as a citizen of the United States, who is at least 18 years old and who meets the registration and residency requirements.

The secretary of state argues that inactive voters are not “qualified electors” whose signatures may be accepted. Her office says inactive voters must take steps, such as showing up to vote, confirming their address or requesting an absentee ballot to restore themselves to active voter, and thus “qualified elector,” status.

The Montana Republican Party opposes the efforts to protect abortion rights and hold open primaries.

Republican Attorney General Austin Knudsen issued opinions stating the proposed ballot language for the partisan primary and abortion protection were insufficient.

Knudsen re-wrote the abortion language to say the proposed amendment, in part, would “allow post-viability abortions up to birth,” “eliminates the State’s compelling interest in preserving prenatal life,” and “may increase the number of taxpayer-funded abortions.”

Supporters appealed his opinions to the Montana Supreme Court and petition language was approved. The justices wrote the petition language for the abortion initiative.

“Extremists have attempted to block this initiative, mislead voters by rewriting the language, disrupt signature collection through intimidation, and interfere with the rights of registered Montana voters to sign the petition,” Kiersten Iwai, spokesperson for Montanans Securing Reproductive Rights and executive director of Forward Montana, said in a statement.

Austin James, the chief legal counsel for the secretary’s office, warned supporters of the abortion initiative in a letter that a legal challenge “will likely frustrate the pace of processing your clients petitions within the statutory period allotted to counties to do so.”

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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