HELENA – On a party-line vote Friday, Republicans on a House committee approved a bill to end Election Day voter registration, cutting it off at 5 p.m. on the previous Friday.
The House State Administration Committee voted 11-7 for House Bill 30 by Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman. All Democrats on the panel opposed it.
The bill now goes to the House floor for debate.
Also Friday, the committee voted 10-8 to table House Bill 108, also by Washburn. It would have required voters to show a photo identification to vote and provided free state ID cards. Three Republicans crossed party lines and voted with the committee’s Democrats to table the bill.
In supporting Washburn’s HB30 to end Election Day voter registration, Republican legislators said the bill was to assist county election officials who have been overwhelmed by people registering to vote and then casting ballots on Election Day.
Rep. Liz Bangerter, R-Helena, said she based her vote for HB30 on a conversation she had with the Lewis and Clark County election supervisor, who told her ending same-day voter registration wasn’t about voter fraud.
“It’s about letting county employees do their job to the best of their ability around Election Day,” she said.
Bangerter also said people wanting to vote have obligations, too.
“I believe strongly that voting is a right, and with all rights come responsibilities,” she said. “Sometimes those responsibilities include that you are registered to vote in a timely manner.”
Rep. Franke Wilmer, D-Bozeman, disagreed.
“Cleaning up election laws is good,” she said. “And encouraging more people to vote is good. Encouraging and making it easier for the elderly to vote, for low-income and young first-time voters, for people who work two jobs and register on Election Day, for minorities, these are good things for our democracy.
“Changing the rules and making it harder is not good for our democracy.”
A 2005 Montana law allows people to register to vote up until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Since then, 28,329 people have registered and voted on Election Day, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said.
Rep. Clarena Brockie, D-Harlem, said about 8,000 registered on Election Day in November 2012, including about 1,100 Native Americans.
“I think the wonderful thing about being American is to vote,” she said.
Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, said his election administrator also said the bill isn’t about addressing fraud.
“One thing we’ve heard is the problem that’s happening on Election Day and it seems to be getting progressively more of a problem,” Hertz said. “I don’t think we’re going to lose voters. If we cut it off on Friday, people are going to know that deadline. There are still a lot of groups out there who go out and help people get registered. They’re just going to have to do it a few days earlier.”
Montana is one of eight states with same-day voter registration.
“I appreciate that we’re one of those eight states because in those eight states we know that every single person that wants to vote is going to have an opportunity to vote,” Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said. “There isn’t going to be a single person who because of earlier deadlines or other restrictions isn’t going to have access to vote. And that’s what this bill is about. It’s a fail-safe.”
Committee Chairwoman Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, a former election administrator, said that when the public sees confusion and long lines caused by voter registration on Election Day, it undermines the process.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.