HELENA – A bill to end voter registration on the Friday before Election Day drew widespread opposition Monday from the state’s chief election official and groups representing Indians, disabled people, women, seniors, union members and others.
In all, 20 people testified against House Bill 30 by Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, while two people spoke in favor of it. It would end voter registration at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, which is the next Tuesday.
The House State Administration Committee took no immediate action on the bill.
A 2005 Montana law allows people to register to vote up until 8 p.m. on Election Day. Since then, a total of 28,329 people have registered and voted on Election Day, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said.
Republicans have tried to reverse the law ever since, while Democrats have defended it. In 2011, the GOP-controlled House and Senate passed a similar bill, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat.
Washburn and two supporters contended ending same-day voter registration would make it easier for election officials to do their jobs on Election Day and prevent potential fraud.
“I believe the integrity of the voter polling day is being challenged,” Washburn said. “It’s kind of like a zoo-ish atmosphere.”
In response to a question later, he said, “After watching a number of elections, yes, I suspect there is fraud.”
Mary Beveridge of Helena said she started the Montana Integrity Project, recruiting and training 300 volunteer poll watchers.
“What we saw at the polls was that there was a lot of chaos, there was a lot of confusion and there was a lot of long lines,” she said, adding, “The voters of Montana should have the expectations of efficient and professional elections.”
Opponents disputed the fraud allegations.
They said same-day registration helps a number of people vote, including those who have recently moved and those who thought they had registered when they obtained their driver’s licenses but learned in some cases they didn’t. It also has benefited students, seniors, rural people, seniors, disabled people and Native Americans register late, if necessary, so they can cast their ballots, advocates said.
McCulloch, the state’s chief election official, said those who register on Election Day aren’t procrastinators.
“If you’ve ever relocated, you know that registering to vote is the last thing on your mind between packing and unpacking, forwarding your mail, paying your bills, starting a new job or enrolling your kids in school,” she said.
Dustin Monroe, executive of Western Native Voice, a group formed to get out the Native American vote, urged the committee to reject the bill. In 2012, he said, some 6,300 American Indians were registered to vote.
“Without late registration options, these people’s voices would not be heard,” Monroe said. “Disenfranchisement tactics have been used countless times.”
People with disabilities or their family members often have to travel for medical care, said Beth Brenneman of Disability Rights Montana.
“Your health care services don’t respect any calendar,” she said. “Thank goodness, we’ve had the fail-safe of Election Day registration.”
During the question-and-answer period, Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, asked Washburn who he thought should vote.
“The person that has a Montana driver’s license, the person that pays taxes in Montana, the person that actually resides here in Montana, that’s who should actually be voting.” Washburn said.
Asked who shouldn’t be voting, Washburn said: “The people that have summer homes, weekend homes; the 100,000 students that are here that don’t have Montana driver’s licenses, that don’t have any identification other than theirs at the college, who by the way have to wait one year to become a Montana resident in order to get resident tuition.”
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.