Bill to stop Election Day registration tabled in committee

HB176 would have cut off voter registration the Friday before election

By: - January 29, 2021 6:23 pm

Voters casting ballots (Getty Images)

A bill that would have ended Montana’s same-day voter registration appears dead after the House Administration Committee voted 13-6 to table the bill. Tabling the bill happened after the committee was unable to pass it.

Democrats and a few Republicans voiced concerns about disenfranchising elderly, disabled or minority groups, and many lawmakers told stories of being inundated with comments from constituents who were opposed to House Bill 176.

Meanwhile, Republicans who supported the bill said it would allow already stressed, overworked elections staff, especially in rural counties, to concentrate on the election, not registering voters.

In 2014, more than 50,000 more Montanans than not supported same-day registration when put to voters. The measure passed with a 57 percent margin. But some lawmakers questioned whether that statistic was still meaningful.

“Since 2014, the confidence of the voters has changed,” said Rep. Kenneth Walsh, R-Twin Bridges. “Are we going to miss some people? Are they going to fall through the crack? Unfortunately, we are. But we’re making people more responsible.”

However, Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, pointed out that in the 2020 election, nearly 4,000 voters registered the same day or the day before the election. Some lawmakers, including Custer, who is a former county election supervisor, said the risk of disallowing 4,000 voters was something they couldn’t overlook.

“That’s almost 4,000 that would not have been allowed to vote in a general election,” Custer said. “Now, multiply that times the elections that have happened, and it’s considerable.”

Nearly a quarter of those same-day registrations came from Missoula County.

“If that number showed up and found out that they couldn’t vote? The numbers are clear. With the emotion of the election, it’s horrible to think what would have happened in that case,” Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, said.

Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, D-Browning, speaks in the House State Administration Committee on Jan. 29, 2021 (Montana Public Access Network)

Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, D-Browning, reminded the committee that Heart Butte residents had to threaten a lawsuit against Pondera County election officials to allow voting, and many Montanans on the reservation have trouble accessing voting sites, even when they’re satellite locations.

“Those were just a few votes there, but the struggle to be counted is real, and it took us years to get these services,” Weatherwax said. “I really think it’s a bad bill and disappointment. I am not going to support anything like this.”

Kortum brought up three concerns.

“First, there has not been a case of voter fraud brought. People are so busy, and they’re trying to pay the bills — maybe they voted or switched precincts. Remember, this is a right as a citizen,” Kortum said. “And we have to think about them. And we’ve heard this concern about the election staff, and I get that. It’s their SuperBowl, but that sounds like a problem we should fix. Staffing shouldn’t be a problem when it comes to a right. But let’s not fix something that’s not broken.”

Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, pointed out that the elections officers remained neutral on the bill, and her county, Yellowstone, Montana’s largest, had not raised concerns about same-day voting.

“This can’t come at the expense of disenfranchising voters,” Karjala said. “We could be subject to lawsuits.”

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, said the bill was to make sure election staff have enough capacity to keep tabs on the election therby giving greater confidence to the public.

“In no way would I support it if it caused one person not to vote or hurt the disabled,” Greef said. “It causes no hardship, and I hate to think that any bill brought by this committee would hurt voting rights. This bill is being brought to serve the public and our election administrators. We’re not 2014 anymore. We have grown, and we have many more voters.”

Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, said she worried about busy election officials and noted that the same people who show up to register on Election Day also go to doctor’s appointments, make haircut appointments and know office hours for other services.

“There are a lot of excuses not to do what we need to do,” Dooling said.

Rep. Kathy Whitman, R-Missoula, who was one of the Republicans to vote against the measure, said she had heard from an overwhelming number of voters in her district who opposed the bill.

“Contrary to what I may feel, I have to vote with my constituents on this,” Whitman said.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.