Opponents: Ballot collection bill unconstitutional, costly

Proponent: ‘How do we hold that person accountable?’

By: - March 22, 2021 9:22 pm

Voters casting ballots (Getty Images)

If you mess up when you drop off your friend’s ballot, you could be in hot water — and owe big money — if House Bill 406 becomes law.

“If well-intentioned ballot deliverers make a mistake, they could be convicted of a criminal misdemeanor offense and incur a penalty of $500 for each wrongly delivered ballot,” said Margaret Bentwood, with the League of Women Voters of Montana. “And that is chilling.”

But plenty of people need help, said opponents of the bill that nearly mirrors one deemed unconstitutional last fall.

That includes voters who live 176 miles away from a ballot dropbox but have no car or money for transportation, such as some Native Americans who live on reservations.

“Ballot collection is a lifeline for reservation communities,” said Keaton Sunchild, with Western Native Voice.

And it includes some college students who don’t have time to walk to an elections office during finals but do want to drop off their ballots in a secure and supervised dropbox on campus.

“For those campuses and Montana students like me, a ballot dropbox provided by their student government or a local civic engagement group can mean the difference between casting a vote or letting elections pass them by,” said Emma Bode, who was so excited to use a campus dropbox at Montana State University that she posted a selfie to Instagram.

The opponents were pushing back against Rep. Mark Noland’s ballot collection bill, which passed in the House 63-36. The draft language describes the bill as “revising the Montana Ballot Interference Protection Act,” but those who testified said it’s nearly identical to the bill a judge struck down last fall for violating people’s right to vote in a case filed by lead plaintiff Western Native Voice.

Noland, a Bigfork Republican, said the bill is needed to preserve the integrity of the vote. As a poll watcher, he said he had witnessed ballot boxes come in without a lock, and generally, he was willing to give the law another try in the courts because voting is sacred.

“There are a lot of us that aren’t afraid of tackling a big job,” Noland said of another legal battle.

A couple of proponents agreed the measures in the bill were warranted. The bill requires that people who drop off ballots for others provide their names, occupations and employers in a registry; that voters get a receipt from a ballot collector; that the Secretary of State track the registrations; and that the elections administrator receive the relationship between the voter and ballot collector, among other requirements.

“This bill doesn’t neglect or take away ballot harvesting,” said Dennison Rivera, chairman of the Lewis and Clark Young Republicans. “What it does basically is hold those accountable who do harvest votes.”

A representative for the Freedom Protection Project agreed and said it’s important for people who are collecting ballots on the reservations not to disenfranchise minorities: “How do we hold that person accountable?”

Opponents listed not only concerns about people wanting to cast a ballot, but also challenges with administering the proposal. Numerous opponents noted it wasn’t constitutional, but Shantil Siaperas said the bill would hit the bottom line of most Montana counties.

She said 53 out of 56 counties would face significant fiscal impact, with smaller counties disproportionately affected. Siaperas, who represents the Montana Association of Counties, estimated the bill would cost 33 counties $480,000, and not for one-time-only expenses, but for payroll and overhead.

“We’ll be seeing the counties get hit with unbudgeted and unfunded costs as soon as this May for school elections,” Siaperas said.

Regina Plettenberg, with the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, said the organization did not want to oppose the bill and does understand concerns about election integrity. But she suggested an interim study bill instead or time to come up with administrative solutions.

She listed numerous issues with implementation and said schools and special districts would be hit particularly hard.

“This is essentially going to almost double the cost of their elections,” Plettenberg said.

In the meantime, Samuel Enemy-Hunter said all he and other ballot collectors were doing on the Crow and Fort Peck reservations was taking ballots from point A to point B for people who didn’t have cars or elderly voters who appreciated the service and the time to visit.

“There was nothing nefarious about what we were doing,” Enemy-Hunter said. And he asked a question: “Why would you want to limit the right to vote — especially based off a law already deemed unconstitutional?”

The committee did not take immediate action Monday.

This story has been updated to correct the full title of the organization Dennison Rivera represents. It’s the Lewis and Clark Young Republicans.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.