Senate greenlights election security bill with controversial amendment

Senator alleges amendment is voter suppression

By: - April 27, 2021 8:51 am

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)

A caregiver paid to help a person with a disability will no longer be able to assist that person in requesting a ballot following an amendment Monday to House Bill 530, said Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula.

“That is beyond the pale. That is voter suppression at its absolute worst,” Bennett said.

But Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said the amendment made sure ballots would not be harvested in a way that could lead to fraud. He said the change to the bill came late but was important.

I think it just got better with the amendment,” Fitzpatrick said.

The Senate approved the amendment to the election security bill on a 30-20 vote and the legislation itself 31-19. HB 530 goes back to the House as amended.

Originally, Fitzpatrick said the bill was requested by the Secretary of State’s Office out of concern foreign governments may be interfering with Montana’s election process. Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, sponsored the bill.

“This bill is intended to direct them (the Secretary of State’s Office) to take steps to improve the security of our electoral process,” Fitzpatrick said.

The bill is short, and the amendment roughly doubled the meat of it. The change Bennett opposed includes this language: “A person may not provide or offer to provide, and a person may not accept, a pecuniary benefit in exchange for distributing, ordering, requesting, collecting or delivering ballots.”

On the floor, Bennett said the amendment upended what had been an important bill to ensure secure elections — and it also revived a measure the Senate already had voted down as well as one the courts had found unconstitutional.

“This is a continuation of bad policy,” Bennett said.

Legislators have revived multiple proposals this session that failed earlier in this same session. In this case, the amendment offered no definitions of terms, and Bennett said legislative legal staff agreed it meant any person getting a direct economic benefit, such as staff working at a senior living home, would be breaking the law if they tried to help another person, such as a resident, with getting a ballot or dropping one off.

“Unfortunately, this good bill to address something that’s incredibly important, election security, has been completely hijacked,” Bennett said.

Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, agreed with Bennett that an earlier bill the Senate didn’t approve went too far in its attempt to ensure election security. But he said the amendment Monday tightens restrictions in a good way.

“I just think he’s reading way too much into this bill,” Hertz said.

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.

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.