Purging Voters

This year’s drop in registrants reflects the most recent election results

By Kellyn Brown

As the presidential primary race hits full gallop, the country’s constituents are paying a little more attention to politics and, perhaps, thinking about whether they are registered to vote, the process of which varies widely by state.

Montana’s election rules made headlines in recent weeks, including when former Republican state lawmaker Corey Stapleton announced his bid for secretary of state and accused the current officeholder, Democrat Linda McCulloch, of “purging” thousands of voter files.

“When both the elected officials and the media don’t talk about these things, bad things can happen,” Stapleton told the Associated Press.

McCulloch countered that the law requires county election administrators to cancel voter registrations for several reasons, including death, incarceration or moving out of state. Most commonly, however, the registration is canceled when someone fails to vote in three consecutive federal general elections.

Stapleton was first made aware that roughly 52,000 registered voters, or about 7.7 percent of the total, were removed after reading a Media Trackers article.

The story, however, makes no accusations of purging and instead highlights an interesting trend that appears to favor Stapleton’s party.

The last federal general election in which these voters cast a ballot and, as a result, are falling off the rolls was in 2008, when President Barack Obama lost the state to Republican John McCain by just 2 percentage points. Media Trackers also found that a disproportionate number of canceled registrants are in Missoula and Gallatin counties, home to the state’s two largest universities. This makes sense.

Obama, that year, galvanized much of his statewide support from college students and that resulted in a strong showing by Democrats in a traditionally conservative state. It didn’t last. In 2012 Republican Mitt Romney won Montana by nearly 14 percentage points.

This year’s drop in registrants reflects the most recent election results and show 2008 may have been an anomaly. For example, while Missoula County lost 14.8 percent of its registered voters this year, more conservative Flathead County lost just 4 percent.

To be sure, Democrats have won several statewide elections in recent years (Gov. Steve Bullock and McCulloch, to name just two), but since 2010 Republicans have controlled both chambers of the Montana Legislature by healthy margins. The geographical makeup of the decreasing registrants explain why: Thousands of voters in Montana’s urban, many of which lean liberal or moderate, haven’t voted in the state since 2008.

There are recent efforts by both parties to change voting rules. During the last legislative session, McCulloch supported a bill to allow citizens to register to vote online if they have a valid driver’s license or identification card. It was tabled in committee.

Right now, Republican leaders are involved in a lawsuit asking that their primaries be closed, allowing only registered party members to vote. Senate Majority Leader Matthew Rosendale and House Majority Leader Keith Regier argue that moderate members of the GOP undermined the Republican majority in each chamber.

Whether you agree with the effort, that’s a better example of purging, or ridding a group of people from a process. In contrast, when voters don’t cast a ballot for three consecutive general elections in Montana, they purge themselves.

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