Contradictory Votes on Voting Laws

By Kellyn Brown

Lawmakers in the Montana House of Representatives, many arguing that they are worried about the stress their county clerks and recorders are under on Election Day, have supported eliminating same-day voter registration. But if you’ve been paying attention at all this session, you quickly realize that the bill’s backers are not really worried about that at all.

“This bill will help out our already overtaxed clerk and recorders’ office,” Rep. Champ Edmunds, the lead sponsor, said last week before joining 64 of his colleagues in changing the law so that registration will now be closed the Friday before each election.

I also sympathize with election officials, especially those in the Flathead. And if their respective workloads were the true motivation for restricting voter registration – available on Election Day each year since 2006 – that at least could be used as a practical argument. Here’s why it’s completely invalid:

Just a week before Republicans decided to eliminate same-day registration, they opposed a proposal that would switch the state to a vote-by-mail system. Another Republican, Rep. Pat Ingraham of Thompson Falls, sponsored that proposal.

Ingraham is a former Sanders County clerk and recorder and introduced House Bill 130 as a way to fix a system that she says is rife with problems. She warned her colleagues on the House floor that without it, “a train wreck is coming.” And all 56 county clerks and recorders in the state supported it. Flathead Clerk and Recorder Paula Robinson has estimated all-mail ballots could save the county $55,000 per election. But lawmakers killed the bill anyway.

While I have previously come out in favor of moving to all-mail voting (mostly based on its success in Oregon and Washington state), I still understand its opposition, which has previously included both Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps it is not the government’s responsibility to bend over backwards to get their constituents to vote by mailing them ballots. On the other hand, actively taking steps to make it harder for people to vote (by eliminating same-day registration, which has previously been used by thousands of Montanans) is a far greater offense.

And that’s not the only proposal the majority is pushing this session. It also wants to pass a law, House Bill 152, which requires voters to show state- or tribal-issued identification when registering, instead of allowing voters to use a number of other documents to prove residency. You may be curious why, exactly, these proposals have surfaced this year. It’s a good question.

Unlike other states, Montana has no recent history of widespread voter irregularities. If it did, that would be a good reason to reevaluate the system and perhaps add restrictions. But the secretary of state and two of her predecessors say same-day registration doesn’t lead to fraud, to which Edmunds responded, “well, my house hasn’t been broken into yet, but I still lock the doors at night.”

So the House is passing some bills based on potential. Yet, concrete warnings from the state’s clerks and recorders that the current system is less secure than mail ballots are ignored. I don’t get it.

Apparently, this is a confusing topic because no one who has voted against all-mail voting and for eliminating same-day registration has been able to articulate a coherent reason why.

The bills now move to the Senate. Lawmakers will again get a chance to explain their reasons for disenfranchising, at worst, thousands of procrastinators and residents without driver’s licenses.

If they can’t make the case and the legislation somehow makes it to Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s desk, these bills should be among the first he vetoes.

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