HELENA — Montana voters will decide whether to make it illegal for one person to turn in another’s absentee ballot unless they have a personal relationship with each other, a measure opponents say would make it more difficult for the elderly and disabled to vote.
The Republican-led Legislature put the question on the Nov. 6 ballot as an anti-fraud measure meant to prevent tampering, though there has been no evidence of tampering in past elections. The legislative referendum would allow only caregivers, relatives or acquaintances to turn in another person’s ballot, which supporters say would reduce the chance of voters being bullied into handing over their ballots to strangers who could change them or throw them away.
It also would cap the number of ballots that any individual is allowed to turn in at six, and it would require the person turning in the votes to log his or her name, address, phone number and relationship to the voters.
“Montana voters should feel empowered to submit their ballots in a way that best works for them and should never feel pressured to provide their ballots to someone they don’t know or trust or worry about their vote being stolen,” supporters led by state Sen Al Olszewski, R-Kalispell, said in a statement.
About two-thirds of votes cast in Montana elections are by absentee ballots, and political parties and advocacy organizations have get-out-the-vote programs that aim to boost turnout and voter participation by making sure voters turn in their ballots.
Organizations such as Montana Women Vote, Montana Native Vote and the University of Montana-based Montana Public Interest Research Group have gone door-to-door offering to turn in absentee ballots for people in past elections, but would be barred from doing so if the referendum passes.
Representatives from those groups testified against the measure during the 2017 legislative session, saying they are performing a public service for people who may otherwise be unable to turn in their own ballots. Volunteers who collect ballots are well-trained, there’s no evidence of any problems arising from ballot collections, Katy Westhoff of the Montana Public Interest Research Group told lawmakers last year.
It’s unclear how many absentee ballots are turned in by others in any given election. But many groups use ballot collection services, including the elderly, the disabled, students and Native American voters, opponents of the referendum said.
“Many Montanans with disabilities, senior citizens and people working multiple jobs sometimes depend on help to get their ballot cast,” opponents led by Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, said in a statement.
Another opponent of the measure is the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, which represents all of the state’s county election administrators. The head of the association, Lewis and Clark County elections supervisor Audrey McCue, previously told lawmakers that the measure isn’t specific and clear enough because it doesn’t define ballot interference and make that behavior illegal.
“We feel that the bill targets the voters that would do things right, rather than those that would do things wrong,” McCue told the Senate State Administration Committee last year.
Olszewski sponsored the measure as a legislative referendum after reading news reports in 2016 of voters in three counties complaining about people offering to deliver their ballots for them. A legislative referendum allows the Republican-led Legislature to take the issue directly to voters without risking a veto by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
The ballot question passed the 2017 legislative session without the support of any Democratic lawmakers.