Voter registration, Montana style — a view from Europe

San Francisco, California attorney Paul More answers voter?s questions at the Stupak Community Center polling place on November 2, 2004 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

States across the union are revisiting the regulations that govern voting.  It’s no surprise: Reactions to the election of 2020 swept the continuum from sighs of relief (from many Democratic voters) to apoplectic snarling (from the Republican candidate).  Few states are eager for a re-run in 2022 or 2024.

Some revisits have turned their attention to Election Day itself, to the ways in which voters are permitted to cast ballots (In person? By mail or even Internet? Other?).  But revisits have also focused less on how a voter votes and more are: Who a voter is?

In Montana, the legislature has toyed with the first path:  HB406 restricts the “ballot collection” process, in which one person (a daughter, say, or an unscrupulous party operative) delivers the ballot of another person (an elderly parent or a gullible voter).  Mostly, though, the legislature has preferred the second path.  HB176 eliminates same-day voter registration (which, depending on your point of view, is either bad because it can increase a voter’s trips to the county seat or good because it simplifies the electoral commission’s chores).  SB169 specifies how applicants must identify themselves when registering to vote.  (Spoiler alert: You’ll want to have a Montana driver’s license, or a military or tribal ID in hand).

Some Americans contend that statutes like these are necessary protections again voter fraud, but their argument is dulled by the fact that actual voter fraud seldom occurs.  The adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” comes to mind.  Other Americans suspect that the legislation is less about voter fraud and more about voter suppression.  Historically, alas, that point of view has been closer to the mark: Think Jim Crow registration schemes like literacy tests and poll taxes, or think Voting Rights Acts in the 1960s, passed to prohibit racial discrimination in voting.

But few Americans are thinking about a question the puzzles many Europeans:  Why do Americans make voting so complicated?  It’s a simple, if sacred, democratic act.  What’s all the fuss?

This is how Europeans vote.  It’s also how Montanans could vote.

Each country in the European Union maintains a registry of its residents.  If you’ve visited Europe, you joined one or another of these registries when submitting your passport data to your hotel.  If you’ve lived in a European country, you’ll have registered yourself with its local authorities.  Hence a databank of persons residing, short-term or long-, in a nation.  Hence, within the databank, a roster of eligible voters, residents who are also citizens who have reached voting age.  Hence, that is to say, the electorate in digital black and white.  In the odd chance that you’re a registered resident but not in the roster of eligible voters, a visit to your district office should correct the error.

As the day approaches, members of the electorate receive notice of a pending election, typically with information about when and where to cast a ballot.  Voters arrive.  They vote.  They leave.  They needn’t regret, as many Americans do, “Oh, I haven’t registered to vote” or “the registration process is too complicated.”  And they needn’t assume that they’re too black or brown to negotiate the registration labyrinth.  In Europe, these issues are moot.  There is no registration process; there is no labyrinth.  To repeat, on election day voters simply arrive, vote, and leave.

Bruce A. Lohof

This European way of managing things bears a resemblance to what Americans call “automatic registration” (which 16 states and the District of Columbia already use).  Perhaps it’s better to refer to the European system as “opt out,” and to the Montana system as “opt in”:  Montana voters are automatically “out” until they get “in” by successful registering to vote.  European voters are automatically “in” until they opt “out” by not casting a ballot.  A friend in Paris writes:  “… in France you are automatically included on electoral list when you turn 18.”

And, an Austrian friend elaborates: The principle behind it is that the right to vote is guaranteed by the state.  It is the state’s obligation and not a citizen’s responsibility (to guarantee the right).  The initiative lies with the state and it is then up to the citizen to use his/her rights or not.

Readers may argue that the European way won’t work in Montana because the state doesn’t maintain a databank of residents from which to draw a roster of eligible voters.  (Indeed, the occasional reader may argue that Montana doesn’t want a databank of residents, which, to them, smacks of “Big Brother.”)  In fact, though, many databases are already maintained by the state.  The Department of Motor Vehicles holds information about Montana’s drivers.  The Department of Revenue holds equivalent data regarding taxpayers.  Find yourself – or find me – at Montana Cadastral (mt.gov), a databank of Montana property holders.  From these and other sources an electoral commission could collate an accurate register of eligible voters.

The results wouldn’t be perfect.  Some Montanans who should be registered voters don’t drive cars, pay taxes, or own property. Strategies to include these folks would be required but they are easy to imagine.  And in any case, “perfect” should never be the enemy of “better.”

Scrapping the old and adopting the new does three things for Montana.  Suddenly, issues like those raised by HB176 and SB169 are simplified.  Suddenly, the State of Montana is honoring its obligation to give voters easy access to the ballot box rather than foisting the responsibility onto the voters themselves.  Suddenly, there’s a system in place that registers you automatically, and then congratulates you as an eligible voter, sends you a timely election notice, and tells you where to cast your ballot.

Wouldn’t that be a relief?

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana.  A former professor and a retired diplomat, he lives in Red Lodge and Vienna.