Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman waits during a break in a trial regarding three Montana voting laws on Aug. 18, 2022 in Yellowstone County District Court House (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify acceptable forms of identification.
When the Montana Legislature eliminated Election Day registration in 2021, most assumed it would stop folks from registering and voting on the same day. But that’s not necessarily the case.
In court on Thursday, that and several other finer points of three recently passed laws were discussed with a central theme — the confusion caused by the bills. Those three laws are being challenged as violating the Montana Constitution and are on trial in Yellowstone Count District Court. Thursday marked the fourth in an anticipated 10-day trial in front of Judge Michael Moses.
Missoula County Election Administrator Bradley Seaman explained that while lawmakers believed they had passed House Bill 176 to push back same-day or Election Day Registration, a close reading revealed that it may not have done that. Instead, new voters or voters moving from out-of-county cannot register, but voters moving within the county can still register and cast ballots.
People who want to change their names on voter registrations can also complete that task and still vote, Seaman testified.
Seaman also explained how the picture-identification process that was changed by Senate Bill 169, and the process of checking for identities, went from a simple four-point flow chart to one with more than a dozen, filling an entire page. Seaman told the court that Missoula County trains nearly 700 staff members to work during an election and that the changes have increased confusion.
That led to a conversation about what forms of identification are permissible. Some identification is fine, so long as it doesn’t have an expiration date. Some forms are OK even if they’re expired, while others are not. As an example, Costco Wholesale Club memberships are permitted as photo identification (and need a secondary identification). College identifications are permitted, but not without a secondary form of identification.
And Ronnie Jo Horse, the executive director of Western Native Voice, an organization dedicated to helping Native Americans living on one of Montana’s reservations get out to vote and register, said that because of a third law, House Bill 530, which prohibits ballot collection, her group cannot perform some outreach because the law’s language is vague and not defined in law.
Elections vs. election officials
A portion of Thursday’s court hearing was drilling down into the details of voting, election training and ballot safety. Seaman testified that Montana’s election officials were split nearly evenly whether to support changing same-day registration, with most of the larger counties, like Missoula, opposing it because of the high number of people who rely on it to vote.
Some lawmakers said HB176 was necessary because it would help alleviate pressure on smaller elections offices in rural areas. And in a poll conducted by the state elections administration association, many rural counties supported the effort to push back the date.
However, Seaman told the court that a busy Election Day, including registering and verifying voters, was just part of the job.
“It’s our job. We’re there to serve voters, and we’re trying to help,” Seaman said.
He also told the court that Missoula County deliberately chose not to oppose HB176 during the legislative process because it’s often seen as a heavily Democrat county in a state dominated by Republican lawmakers.
“We feel that that may lead to more supporting the bill, which we did not support, because of the political landscape,” Seaman said.
Mac Morris, an attorney for Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who must defend the Legislature’s 2021 laws, asked Seamen if his office didn’t oppose same-day registration for a different reason: Because the county had just invested more than $4 million in an election center that may not be used as much because of the law change.
“Laws that remove services for voters at any time is not good for Missoula County when the business of our office is serving voters,” Seaman said.
Laws on trial
The fate of three laws will be decided in this two-week trial that began on Aug. 15 in Yellowstone County District Judge Michael G. Moses. The three laws are:
Senate Bill 169: This bill changes the acceptable forms of identification used for voting. It now requires an additional form of identification to be used in addition to student identification from in-state colleges and universities.
House Bill 176: This bill eliminates Election Day voter registration in Montana. Montana has had same-day, or Election Day Registration, since 2005, but the original provision was not included in the Montana Constitution. In 2014, voters rejected an effort to dismantle same-day registration. The 2021 Legislature moved the last-chance for election registration to noon the day before election.
House Bill 530: This measure is very similar to a law ruled unconstitutional in 2020. It concerns anyone collecting a ballot. Instead of banning the practice of “ballot collection” altogether, it prohibits ballot collectors from being paid.
Seaman told the court that county officials were left somewhat driftless by the new laws, trying to interpret them and train election judges and staff correctly.
Seaman sent an email to Jacobsen’s office asking for help, clarification and materials to assist, but the office did not respond.
“We want to make sure every county is doing it the same way,” Seaman said.
Isaac Nehring, a Helena resident and the founder of Montana Youth Action, a group dedicated to involving youth in the voting process, also testified that the new laws particularly impact first-time and young voters.
“We’re all about high schoolers getting involved and learning the processes, and these bills make it harder, and they’re harder to understand,” Nehring said.
He said he’s worked with different lawmakers, Democrat and Republican, and he lobbied against some of the efforts. However, he told the court that several Republican lawmakers wouldn’t respond to youth concerns, while others told him that if they didn’t vote to support the new laws, “there would be consequences if they didn’t support the measures.”
“Certain chairs and leaders told me that their re-elections were at risk if they supported young people voting,” Nehring said.
Ballots and body cameras
On Wednesday, Horse testified that in order to make sure that ballot collection and those who worked on get-out-the-vote activities were even more secure, her organization, which is also one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, would be implementing body cameras and a lockbox for ballots.
In court, attorneys also presented materials that showed Western Native Voice’s code of ethics and training manuals that specifically instruct employees on what they can and cannot do. For example, employees cannot touch a mailbox or any mail in it. The 10,000-member organization primarily serves tribal members on Montana’s seven reservations.
Horse said that the organization is purchasing and implement lock boxes and body cameras because of the controversy that keeps on popping up, and the issues that seem constant in the Legislature.
“There have been no complaints. There have been no investigations, but these laws keep coming up, and they keep affecting our work,” Horse said. “There is no evidence of voter intimidation. There is no evidence of fraud.”
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