Bill to end election-day registration in Montana advances

HB176 would move the registration cutoff to noon the day before an election

By: - February 4, 2021 3:28 pm

A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church on Election Day, November 6, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Legislation to end same-day voter registration on Election Day in Montana has cleared a key hurdle in the state House despite a rocky hearing that saw concerted opposition from indigenous lawmakers worried about the disenfranchisement of some voters and frustration from some conservatives who felt the bill doesn’t go far enough.

The bill, HB176 from Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, is a top priority of Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, an effort that Republicans say is to shore up election integrity in the state. It passed on second read Thursday 61-39, with a small number of Republicans joining Democrats in opposing the legislation. With an amendment introduced in committee, it now cuts off registration at noon the day before an election.

“Elctions don’t pop up out of the blue,” Greef said. “Election officials should concentrate on one thing the day of the election, and that is the election.”

As initially written, the bill would have ended voter registration the Friday before election day. But lawmakers on the House State Administration Committee balked and tabled the proposal. A week later, the committee voted to revive the bill with an amendment moving back the cutoff, after the Governor and Secretary of State pressured lawmakers to let it get a hearing in front of the full House.

“Our committee worked very, very hard and came up with a compromise and decided on Monday for a variety of reasons,” Greef said.

Even with that, opponents have warned that the bill could inhibit the ability to vote of the thousands of Montanans who register on election day each year, especially those who are low-income or live on Native American reservations.

Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, said he didn’t register to vote until 2006, in part because he felt intimidated by the process and by the county officials running elections.

His wife brought him to register and vote on election day, which he resisted, fearing all the paperwork he’d have to fill out. But the year before, the Legislature had changed the law to allow same-day registration, she informed him.

If it wasn’t for that time of me walking in there and having that influence, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” he said on the House floor Thursday. “I’ve learned enough to stand up here and fight for what I think is right for the folks back home.”

In 2005, a bipartisan majority of lawmakers, with the support of the Republican Secretary of State, voted to allow election-day registration in Montana. In 2014, a ballot initiative to end the practice was trounced by 15 points. Montana is now one of 21 states with election-day registration on the books.

“This is overturning what the people want,” said Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder. “To all you attorneys out there in the state of Montana…here’s anther jobs bill for you.”

Indigenous Montanans face a variety of barriers to voting, Running Wolf said, and taking away the ability to register to vote on election day would only worsen the low turnout among Native American voters in the state.

“There’s a lack of information of how and where to register to vote, long travel distances, low levels of access, hostility to natives at county offices or satellite offices,” he said.

He recalled, for example, feeling ashamed of his beat up truck when he drove to the polling place, and as if he was being looked at with suspicion by elections workers.

“The answer to a staffing issue is not a blanket removal of a service that ensures that Montanans are able to exercise their constitutional rights,” said Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman.

Proponents of the bill say it’s necessary in order to relieve the burden on county clerks and mitigate long lines on election day — lines that some Republicans say benefit Democrats.

Rep. Jed Hinkle, R-Belgrade, recalled an instance from the last election in which a non-profit brought busloads of people to the polling place on election day, with lines stretching around the block.

“Those non-profit groups — they were not on our side of the aisle — what they were doing is working those people 30 feet from the building with literature, pizza, heat lamps and everything else,” he said.

“Lines around a voting place are a celebration of our democracy,” countered Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula.

Debate on the bill was briefly held up by an amendment from Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, that would have moved the deadline to register to vote back to Friday. He was supported by several other members of the GOP’s ultra-conservative wing, who said that the Friday deadline was clearer.

But it ultimately got a chilly reception from most lawmakers.

“This amendment (to end registration at noon the day before) was an amendment in compromise,” said Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, herself a former county elections official. She was one of the Republicans who voted to pass the bill out of the committee and onto the House floor despite disagreeing with its intent.

“Moving it back to Friday would preclude all the people who can come in from 8 a.m., to 12 noon to vote,” she said.

The amendment failed, only for Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, to propose an identical amendment as Tschida’s. The chair of the House Committee of the Whole, Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, ruled it dilatory — or as an attempt to slow down debate — a decision that the body upheld, killing Mitchell’s amendment.

Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, who is the Chairman the House Rules Committee, said he wished the deadline was Friday, but agreed with Knudsen’s ruling and implored his fellow Republicans to support the bill anyway, and work to amend it further in the Senate.

“If this bill dies, we can’t get anything, if it survives, I’m gonna push for the Friday before,” Skees said.

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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.