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Late changes to election laws mean Montana voters were sent inaccurate information

Voters fill out their ballots at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in Bozeman, Mont., on Nov. 3, 2020.
Tommy Martino
Voters fill out their ballots at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in Bozeman, Mont., on Nov. 3, 2020.

Montanans are able to register to vote on Election Day until 8 p.m., and IDs that don't include an address will be acceptable at the polls.

But an informational pamphlet for voters from the secretary of state says otherwise.

The inaccurate pamphlet sent to all registered voters in the state is a result of last-minute changes in election law.

The pamphlet includes information based on laws passed last year by Republicans eliminating same-day registration and tightening voter ID requirements. A district court judge struck down the laws late last month, saying they "severely" restrict Montanans' right to vote and especially burden marginalized communities.

The pamphlets were printed and sent to voters to meet a legally required deadline — before the court issued its ruling blocking the laws.

The Montana Supreme Court had allowed the laws to stand for the state's June primary, meaning voters will now follow different rules for the general election.

Ronnie Jo Horse — executive director of Western Native Voice, one of the advocacy groups that sued the state over its new election laws — says she's concerned the pamphlets will sow confusion in rural Montana and on tribal reservations, where internet and cell service are spotty.

"The mail piece was so critical because that could have been [voters'] only interaction with the election, and the information is wrong," Horse said.

The snafu underscores how voting policies can change at the last minute with little time to educate voters. Montana was one of many states that passed restrictive new voting laws after the 2020 election — several of which have been challenged in court.

Horse said she hopes Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen distributes corrected pamphlets; the state hasn't yet commented on whether it will.

Horse says rural voters already face barriers to participating in elections, like long drives to the polls. "Just a few more hurdles, I think, would deter people from voting," she said.

There is precedent for correcting voter pamphlets. In October 2018, then-Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton spent more than $265,000 to print and mail out an addendum to a voter pamphlet that included formatting errors.

Connor Fitzpatrick — elections supervisor in Lewis and Clark County, which includes the capital Helena — says his office is spreading the word about the changes on its website and social media pages, and by training election workers.

"By keeping all of those avenues open, we can hopefully get as many people in the know about that rule set we're using as possible," he said.

Fitzpatrick says his office has been preparing to deal with changes in election law since the lawsuits challenging the measures were filed last year. But getting updates to voters is a challenge, especially as the office also tries to combat misinformation about election fraud that swelled after the 2020 election.

Copyright 2022 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee Ragar
Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.