HELENA — Requiring Montana counties to open polling places for November's election would be "absolutely catastrophic," for voters and for public health, the governor's chief legal counsel, Raph Graybill, told a federal judge Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen heard arguments in Missoula on a motion by President Donald Trump's campaign and other Republican groups who want to overturn an option that Gov. Steve Bullock gave counties to hold the election by mail to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Christensen said he would rule quickly.
Forty-five of the state's 56 counties chose to offer a mail-in ballot, which must be mailed out on Oct. 9.
The lawsuit is one of three the Trump campaign filed to block mail balloting in Nevada, Montana and New Jersey. A judge threw out the Nevada case on Friday saying the campaign failed to show how it could be harmed by a new law that calls for mail-in ballots to be sent to all active voters. The New Jersey case is pending.
The Montana complaint — filed by Donald J. Trump for President, the Republican National Committee, the Republican Senatorial Committee and the Montana Republican State Central Committee — argued that mailed ballots are subject to fraud.
"We had a federal judge asking a group of lawyers from out of state who flew here to say Montana's election is full of fraud to put up any evidence to back up their assertion, and they conceded that they had none," Graybill said.
The Republican organizations also argued Bullock did not have the authority to allow counties to offer an all-mail ballot, saying that power is reserved for the Legislature. The state argued Bullock had the authority under his emergency declaration due to COVID-19 that allows the governor to suspend statutes relating to state business, Graybill said.
The state also explained how "absolutely catastrophic" it would be to require counties to open polling places, and that it would create "a tremendous amount of confusion, disenfranchisement and real safety issues," Graybill said.
County election clerks provided affidavits saying if the court ordered them to hold in-person elections, the counties would need extra masks, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies that have not been ordered and would need to recruit and train poll workers. Typically, poll workers are older residents with health concerns who would not be able to work an in-person election, clerks said.
"What we really emphasized at the hearing is the governor's directive allows counties to make it easier to vote," Graybill said. "Of course, you can still vote in person through Election Day, but for people that don't want to risk exposure to the virus, who want to minimize contact, mail balloting makes it easier."
James Brown, a Helena attorney appearing on behalf of the Trump campaign, referred questions to Spenser Merwin, executive director of the Montana Republican Party. Merwin did not respond to a phone message seeking comment on the hearing.
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