HELENA – The House endorsed a plan Thursday to convert most state elections to mail-in only ballots despite a divided Republican majority.
The issue has failed for years in the Montana Legislature after the political parties took turns opposing it. This time around, many of the conservative tea party Republicans vocally opposed the measure leading to a close 57-43 vote.
The plan brought forward this time was a long time in the making and likely better researched than past efforts. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch joined with Republican Rep. Pat Ingraham, a former local election official in Thompson Falls, in drafting the proposal.
Ingraham received loud applause after an emotional closing in which she said opponents were feeding off poorly researched fear. She also said opponents were ignoring local election officials who continue to warn the current system is fraught with problems.
“They have been telling us a train wreck is coming, and you guys weren’t listening,” Ingraham said. “This is a lot more secure than a lot of your poll sites now.”
Under House Bill 130, all local, municipal, state and federal elections would be covered. Schools could still hold elections at a polling place. The measure sets up drop boxes and allows people to keep voting in person if they choose by returning the mail-in ballot in person to their local election office.
The bill faces one more usually procedural vote in the House before going to the Senate.
Opponents said they believe mail-in ballots could lead to more voter fraud. They said the drop-off boxes could be tampered with. They also argued that the process would make voting too easy and more uneducated voters would be casting ballots.
“I don’t feel like our election is a time to do trial and error and work out problems as we go,” said Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka.
Supporters expect voter turnout will greatly increase once all registered voters are automatically sent a mail-in ballot. Many voters already take advantage of a similar process by using permanent absentee ballots.
Special drop boxes will be available for voters, perhaps those who don’t want to buy a stamp. And voters will still have an option of delivering the ballot in person to election officials on Election Day.
Counties expect the reduced staffing and streamlined process on their end will save millions of dollars statewide.
The legislation also requires a more stringent review of voter files to make sure addresses are current, and matches voters against a statewide database to ensure against fraud.
The proposal would go into effect in 2012 if it clears the Legislature and the governor’s desk.
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