Our democracy works best when everyone can participate in it and when there are as few barriers to participation as possible. But in Montana, HB 892, a state law passed earlier this year, erects new, unnecessary barriers to Montanans trying to register to vote and make their voices heard in our democracy — punishing innocent voter behavior (with potential felony prosecutions) and threatening the freedom to vote.
This cannot stand.
That’s why the League of Women Voters of Montana (LWVMT), represented by Campaign Legal Center (CLC) and Upper Seven Law, filed a lawsuit in Montana state court to block HB 892, challenging its constitutionality under state law.
HB 892’s stated purpose is to prevent “double voting,” the practice of voting more than once during an election, but there are already state and federal laws in place to prevent and punish double voting. HB 892 goes above and beyond its stated purpose, threatening the act of registering to vote itself.
HB 892 threatens Montanans with jailtime or fines (or both!) for innocent behavior when registering to vote, with penalties that exist nowhere else in the country for similar actions. Specifically, HB 892 threatens to punish voters who are unable to deregister to vote at a previous place of residence — even though no standard process to do that exists — before registering in Montana.
Additionally, the law threatens to punish voters who are unable to provide detailed information about their previous place of residence on their new voter registration form, even if that information is left out by accident.
At its core, HB 892 threatens to punish voters for moving and re-registering to vote, which weakens democracy and Montanans’ freedom to participate in it.
There are three key ways that HB 892 undermines Montanans’ democratic participation and freedom to vote.
HB 892 targets certain already-vulnerable populations of voters.
This bill potentially targets voters in already-vulnerable populations, including housing-insecure individuals, older adults moving into assisted living facilities, students, Native voters, formerly incarcerated Montanans, active-duty service members and veterans, low-income voters, and voters who otherwise move frequently.
In reality, this looks like punishing grandparents moving into an elderly-care facility or students moving across the state for school, all for the “crime” of not deregistering to vote or not being able to provide complete information about a previous registration.
This law punishes innocent voter behavior and threatens voters of all political leanings, which is simply unfair. Every eligible Montanan deserves to be able to register to vote without fear.
HB 892 threatens voters with up to 18 months in prison, fines up to $5,000, or both, for innocent voter behavior.
If voters do not deregister and do not provide detailed information — even if it is unintentionally left out — about their previous place of residence when registering to vote, they risk potential criminal prosecution.
This is a serious threat to Montanans’ freedom to vote. The law puts the responsibility of managing accurate voter records onto the voters themselves, rather than on the election officials who are responsible, under federal law, for properly maintaining the voter rolls.
HB 892 attacks nonpartisan pro-democracy civic engagement groups, a bedrock of American democracy.
HB 892 discourages nonpartisan civic engagement groups — like LWVMT — and the citizens who join them from sharing pro-democracy and pro-voter messages due to the uncertainty of potential criminal penalties this bill creates. This is a violation of such groups’ constitutionally protected rights.
Pro-democracy citizens, who try to help their neighbors participate in our democracy by registering to vote, should be celebrated not punished.
HB 892 threatens to make it harder for Montanans to participate in our democracy. Montana and its courts need to ensure that voters can register to vote without fear of being jailed or fined for an innocent mistake.