Bill to limit absentee ballot voting heard

Election officials group urges a no vote

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)

Voters won’t be able to receive absentee ballots at Post Office boxes anymore if House Bill 455 passes, just one problem with it among many raised Monday by the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, Election Administrators.

Rep. Lola Sheldon Galloway, R-Great Falls, sponsored a bill to revise absentee ballot laws.

Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, wondered if the main proponent of the bill, Tony Rausch, knew how it would affect voters who live on reservations. Monday, Rausch presented the bill sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon Galloway, R-Great Falls.

“Are you aware that on most reservations in the state of Montana, that there’s no mail delivery service to residential residents and only to P.O boxes?” Running Wolf asked.

“I can’t say that I was aware of it,” said Rausch, who introduced himself as representing, if anyone, the Great Falls Pachyderm Club.

At the hearing of the House State Administration Committee, Rausch presented the bill that would eliminate the option to request an absentee ballot for future elections; do away with in-person absentee voting; and change the cutoff time to turn in an absentee ballot to 6 p.m. on Election Day instead of 8 p.m. including for military voters overseas.

Rausch said the bill is simple in that it will require voters to go to their local elections office anytime during the calendar year and register for an absentee ballot to be mailed to their residence. He disagreed with the current practice, which allows people to ask to receive absentee ballots for future elections.

“Once you’re on the list, you’re on the list,” Rausch said.

Three people spoke in favor of the bill, including Randy Pinocci, a Republican member of the Montana Public Service Commission who said he was speaking on behalf of himself. In his recent campaign throughout 19 counties, Pinocci said he heard of multiple ballots going to an incorrect address, including ballots for dead people, and he wanted to clean up elections.

“We’re leaving ourselves open for voter fraud,” Pinocci said.

But representatives from the Montana Association of Centers for Independent Living, the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, the Montana Public Interest Research Group, Montana Associated Students, Northern Plains Resource Council, Montana Native Vote, Montana Federation of Public Employees, and several representatives from Indian Country across the state opposed the measure.

Regina Plettenberg, with the association of clerk and recorders, urged legislators to read the bill, which she said created numerous problems, including striking an Americans with Disabilities Act option for voting. The absentee list would be gone as well, she said, and currently, 72 percent of Montana voters are on the list. She also believes the bill would “put us sideways” with federal law.

At the request of a legislator, Plettenberg described the way Montana clears people who are deceased from the voter list: election officials get deaths from vital statistics, and most officials are also clerk and recorders, so they already have death records and review them monthly, she said. They check obituaries in local newspapers as well.

“Please, please look at this bill. Ask questions, but please vote no on this bill,” Plettenberg said.

In their questions, legislators asked how different groups of people would be affected and how the bill would play out in real life. The committee did not take action Monday.

Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, said she wondered if the bill would actually disenfranchise people with disabilities. The bill notes election administrators are lawfully bound to provide people with disabilities alternative ways of casting a ballot on Election Day if they are assigned to an inaccessible polling place. However, the bill would strike the option of “voting by absentee ballot in person at a designated voting station at the county election administrator’s office.”

Joel Peden, head of the Montana Association of Centers for Independent Living, agreed it would disenfranchise voters who have disabilities. In his testimony, he said he was “appalled” by legislation that would make it more difficult for people with a disability to vote.

“Believe it or not, we still have counties in this state that think it’s OK to not have accessible polling places,” Peden said.

Rep. Marta Bertoglio, R-Clancy, a veteran who was stationed in Germany, wanted to know how she would be able to request a replacement if she was overseas and made a mistake on her ballot. When she was away, she said, “I valued my absentee ballot when I received it.”

Plettenberg said the bill would make it so that overseas voters would only have until seven days before the election to make such a request. “If you spoiled the ballot after the seven days, we would not be able to send you another one,” she said.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, wanted to know how the bill would affect snowbirds.

“If I was a snowbird then, and I had signed up for an absentee ballot, and I’m in Arizona, I’m not gonna be able to get my absentee ballot?” Custer wondered.

“That is exactly how we read this bill,” Plettenberg said. In fact, she said if a person was out of state and needed to request the ballot, that request would have to be made in person.

Rep. Kenneth Walsh, R-Twin Bridges, said he wanted to know how a typical poll voter would be able to vote if that person realized, just a couple of days before the election, that he was going to be out of town. Could he still vote two days ahead at the elections office with an absentee ballot?

Rep. Sheldon Galloway at first said he could cast an absentee ballot then, but after consulting with Rausch, she corrected herself and said the voter would have to vote seven days before the election.

In her closing argument, she said people have talked about the solutions offered in the bill over and over again. She also stressed that people have more than enough time to request an absentee ballot with the bill as written.

“If you do it last minute, I’m sorry, you’ve had a whole year,” Sheldon Galloway said.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”