HELENA – House Republicans pushed through a bill Thursday to end same-day voter registration and instead cut it off at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day.
House Bill 30 by Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, passed an initial 61-39 vote, with all Republicans voting for it and all Democrats against it. The bill faces a final vote before heading to the Senate.
Republicans cited long waiting lines and confusion on Election Day resulting from what’s known as “same-day voter registration” as a reason to change the 2005 state law.
Democrats countered that it would deprive people of their right to vote if they learned on Election Day they weren’t registered when they thought they were.
“All we’re doing is moving the registration back so that the clerk and recorder’s staff can work on the election on Election Day, and the voters, if they’re going to run through the voting process, can be moved along speedily, rather than a four- to six-hour wait,” Washburn said.
Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, agreed, saying, “Why in the world can’t people register on Friday, give the county clerks and recorders reasonable time to take care of business, and be ready for an election?”
A former election administrator, Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, said voter registration on Election Day was intended “to address those few people that might have been moving in and just didn’t get things changed and really wanted to vote.”
But it has become a “greater burden to bear” because so many more people are using it, she said.
But Democrats said the right to vote is paramount. County elections supervisors hire more staff and buy more computers to handle the overflow of those registering to vote on Election Day.
“We’re preparing to deny the right to vote, a fundamental right, to people who may have forgotten to change their registration until the last minute, people who have moved or been forgetful,” said Rep. Tom Woods, D-Bozeman, who said he was forgetful. “Denying that vote is a form of punishment that we reserve for felons.”
Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, called HB30 “one of the worst bills because it cuts to the core of why we are all here and that is our democracy.”
“Who is it in your district that you’re willing to say I’m sorry?” Bennett said. “A veteran who is coming from the war who didn’t get a chance to fill out a voter registration card? You don’t get to vote. Sorry, single mom that’s working three jobs. You don’t get to vote.”
Rep. Clarena Brockie, D-Hayes, said more than 1,100 of her fellow Native Americans registered and voted on Election Day in 2012. She said it’s not an easy job to turn out the vote because many don’t realize they aren’t registered.
“We believe that this violates our rights under the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” she said.
The state’s chief election official, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat, denounced HB30 as “a ruthless bill that denies Montanans their right to vote.”
She testified that more than 28,000 Montanans have registered and voted on Election Day since the law took effect.
Republicans have tried to reverse the law ever since it passed, while Democrats have defended it. Then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed a similar bill in 2011.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at email@example.com.