Voter registration in Montana — the reality and the dream

February 15, 2022 5:23 am

Voting illustration (Illustration by Getty Images).

Linda Taylor (not a real person) lives with her family in rural Montana.  On a farm of sorts, west of Wisdom.  It isn’t much of a farm, and Wisdom itself isn’t much more than a village (pop. ±100) several miles east of the Taylor place.  Dillon, the Beaverhead County seat?  Southeast of Wisdom and over Tweedy Mountain (elevation 11,154) as the crow flies.  By car, though, it’s an hour-and-a-half away.

It’s scenic up in those parts.  Bucolic but remote.

Linda will soon turn 18.  (Save for later.  She holds a driver’s license, issued to her by the State’s Motor Vehicles Division.)  Soon she’ll receive a postcard from the Beaverhead County Elections Office in Dillon.  The card will take note of her pending birthday and congratulate her on becoming an eligible voter.  It will inform her that she’s been automatically registered to vote in all national, state, and county elections.  It will remind her that the next election will be held in November, and that she’ll be able to vote in the Wisdom Community Hall.  Bring this postcard and a valid ID with you, it says.

Incidentally, there is more save-for-later to her tale:  The Beaverhead County Elections Office knows – from her MVD file and from plenty of other public documents available to it – that Linda is legitimately a registered voter:  she’s 18 years old or older, she’s a U.S. citizen and a permanent resident of the county, she’s never been a felon, and she isn’t mentally disturbed.  Ms. Taylor, welcome to the ballot box.

Whoops!  Insert meme of bubble bursting.  Followed by meme of Linda yawning and scratching her way into a new day.  The county elections folks down in Dillon aren’t going to mail that postcard to her.  No one is.  Instead: If she wishes to become a registered voter, Linda might click on the Montana Secretary of State’s website.  There she’ll learn that:

  • She’ll need to visit that election office down in Dillon.  To complete, sign, and submit a voter registration application.
  • The application will need to be accompanied by an acceptable form of identification.  That driver’s license is a relief; without it, registration would be complicated.
  • She’ll also need – let me quote the website – to “provide a residence address or specific geographic location information from which your residence address may be determined.”  (Again, her driver’s license?  Or perhaps her parents’ property or tax records?  Or perhaps a recent utilities bill?)

“Once you are registered,” the website assures her, “you will receive a voter confirmation card from the county election office that contains the precinct and polling place for your residence.”

This is business-as-usual, Montana style.  The dream, by contrast, is what’s known as “automatic registration.”  It’s a business-as-usual of its own, one used across European democracies and in nearly one/third of the states in the United States.  Automatic registration would deliver the postcard described in Linda’s dream.  It would be remarkably similar to the “voter confirmation card” noted in the Secretary of State’s website, but getting from here to either card is remarkably different:

For Linda, one process ends with a pleasant surprise in the morning mail, while the other begins with a half-day’s visit to Dillon.  That and some paperwork.

And because she postpones her trip to the county seat – you know:  the weather, the chores, the homework, simple procrastination – Linda’s participation in the next election is uncertain.

And because there are scores of Linda Taylors all over Montana – each a would-be eligible voter who isn’t registered – the state’s roster of voters is incomplete.

And because its roster is incomplete, Montana’s democratic process is impaired.

Look at it this way.

A democracy requires an electorate, that is, a list that includes all (or nearly all) of the eligible voters and none (or nearly none) of the ineligible ones.  That electorate requires a registration system, one that maximizes participation and accuracy.  That system needs Linda Taylor to be included.

Some readers may argue that the folks in Dillon don’t have access to the sort of databanks that automatic registration would require.  That’s less true than they might think.  The Motor Vehicles Division – the one that issued Linda’s driver’s license – knows about her.  The Department of Revenue knows about her taxpaying parents.  And you can find them – and perhaps yourself – at <Montana Cadastral (>, which includes them in a databank of Beaverhead County property holders.  It’s true, of course:  Some Montanans who should be registered voters don’t drive cars, pay taxes, or own property.  Ways must be found to include them, and the current system of voter registration is an easy fallback.  Meanwhile, “perfect” shouldn’t be allowed to defeat “better.”  

About that Secretary of State’s website:  Montana’s current State Secretary, Christi Jacobsen, has boasted in recent editorials that “Montana has the best elections in the country.”  An exaggeration, you’ll probably agree, but perhaps she can be encouraged to make Montana’s elections even better by supporting automatic registration throughout the state.  Perhaps your state legislators can be encouraged too.  It isn’t a partisan thing:  Blue-state Oregon does it, red-state North Dakota does it too.  It’s just smart election management.  And voters like Linda Taylor need it.

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Bruce Lohof
Bruce Lohof

Bruce A. Lohof is a native of Montana. A former professor and a retired diplomat, he divides his time between Red Lodge and Vienna.