Some Republicans change committee votes on same-day registration bill

Pressure from ‘2nd Floor’ possibly at play

By: - February 2, 2021 7:45 pm

In this photo illustration a pencil lies on a U.S. presidential election mail-in ballot received by a U.S. citizen living abroad that shows U.S. Republican President Donald Trump and his main contender, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, among the choices on September 21, 2020 (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Pressure from the state GOP and its top elected official, Gov. Greg Gianforte, may have factored in to a House committee vote Tuesday morning to pass a bill ending election-day voter registration in Montana, some Republican lawmakers say.

The House State Administration Committee voted 10-9 to pass HB176, a bill that, following an amendment, establishes a cutoff for voter registration at noon the day before an election.

Last week, the committee voted to table the bill, which in its first form would have cut off registration the Friday before Election Day. This was in spite of being named a top priority for Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen and the governor.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed concerns that the proposal could disenfranchise the elderly, indigenous voters, disabled Montanans and others who often make use of same-day registration.

But Tuesday, some of those same lawmakers voted to take the bill off the table, 10-8 — one Democrat, Rep. Laurie Bishop, could not vote as she was in another committee, and the motion did not allow for voting by proxy — and then ultimately to send the bill to the full House.

One of those lawmakers was Deer Lodge Republican Rep. Gregory Frazer.

He told the Daily Montanan that pressure from the governor’s office and other members of his party to at least allow the bill a hearing on the House floor was “very much a real thing.”

“A lot of folks were coming to me and trying to convince me to give the bill a chance on the floor,” Frazer said.

Comment from constituents and election workers from his district in support of the bill also nudged him in that direction, he said — though he still believes the bill is generally bad policy, and isn’t likely to support it when it goes up for a full House vote.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, a Republican from Forsyth and a former county elections official, has been in consistent opposition to the measure, and was one of two Republicans who voted against the bill both last week and Tuesday, saying it does nothing to improve election security.

For better or worse, she said, thousands of voters register and vote on election day. Plus, Montana voters in 2014 already rebuffed a ballot initiative to end same-day registration by a 15 point margin.

“My top concern is we already went to the voters,” Custer said Tuesday.

Custer said she did not receive any top-down pressure to change her vote on the bill, something she attributes to her firm stance. But she acknowledged that the bill’s priority status led to pressure on lawmakers to support it.

“If you think about it, it’s a federal thing going to the state … the secretaries of state organization and the governors organization, they’re all working together to try to do this because it’s a big national thing,” Custer said. “So they’re getting pressure from their groups, and they’re putting pressure on us. That’s how I feel it probably was.”

Gianforte Tuesday did not directly answer a question about what pressure he put on lawmakers to pass the bill.

“There’s a lot needed for the legislature, and I look forward to giving them thoughtful consideration if they get to my desk,” he said.

The bill can come up for a vote in the House as early as Wednesday. Custer said she doubts there’s enough Republicans in opposition to stop the bill’s progress, so she hopes to work with the Secretary of State’s office and other stakeholders to ensure that voters are aware of the change in deadline.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.