HELENA - A plan to use only mail-in ballots for the state's main elections, which haltingly moved forward with fragile bipartisan cooperation, failed Friday after allegations of racism from a Native American lawmaker and defensive counter-accusations.
The simmering tensions between Republicans and Democrats erupted, somewhat surprisingly, over a bill that modifies the way elections are run.
The House had abruptly changed its mind on the proposal after endorsing the proposal a day earlier. The bill failed after many Republicans, uneasy with vote-by-mail in the first place, decided to turn against it.
Native American lawmakers were upset about a Thursday move by Republicans to strip special provisions aimed at outreach on reservations where they say many don't have mailing addresses. The issue, brought up in a Democratic caucus before a floor vote, raised harsh allegations from a Native American lawmaker.
Rep. Carolyn Pease-Lopez, of Billings, told Rep. Derek Skees, one of the Republican lawmakers sitting in on the public meeting, that "I felt so much hatred from your caucus."
"I feel like if it was up to you we would all be dead," Pease-Lopez said. "We are going to keep having babies and live and thrive no matter how much you try to oppress us."
Skees told reporters afterward that race had nothing to do with the Thursday amendment to take education provisions just for reservations and universities out of the bill. Republicans argued it was unfair to give special treatment to just the two groups.
"Race has nothing to do with it," he said. "I have nothing to do with hatred. I love humanity."
"It pains me to think that she looks at me and sees hate," he added.
Skees pointed out some Native Americans were vocal opponents during public testimony because of the problems it could pose on reservations.
Skees, who voted against the bill both Thursday and Friday, said he hopes to discuss the issue with Pease-Lopez after emotions die down.
House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray wasn't so charitable.
"With the increased attention on civility in politics, we are disappointed and disheartened by the shameful comments from Rep. Pease-Lopez and the ensuing applause from the Democrat caucus," McGillvray said in a statement. "To claim that the GOP caucus, which includes several Native Americans, would want an entire people killed is entirely untrue and deeply offensive."
Vote-by-mail appeared doomed again. Over the past several legislative sessions, Republicans and Democrats have taken turns supporting it then opposing it.
This time, many conservative and tea party Republicans turned on the bill. Last session, concern from Native American Democrats killed it.
Local election officials have been clamoring for the change, arguing it will be more efficient, reduce fraud and save money.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat who had worked with a Republican lawmaker to advance the bill, said it is time to let voters answer the question with an initiative. She blamed unfounded fear over voter fraud for the failure.
"Today's vote proves that fiction too easily trumps fact in the Montana Legislature," she said in a statement. "It's a sad day when elected legislators let politics and scare tactics stand in the way of doing what's right. Politics overpowered the greater good, and Montanans lost."