HELENA – The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a legislative referendum to end Election Day voter registration can appear on the November ballot.

However, the court ordered Attorney General Tim Fox to rewrite the ballot statement for the referendum to clarify that the proposed change is not required by the National Voter Registration Act. The original statement in the referendum incorrectly said the change was intended to ensure compliance with the federal law.

In its 5-1 decision, the court denied a petition by labor unions and other groups to remove Legislative Referendum 126 from the November ballot.

If passed, the referendum would end voter registration at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, which is on a Tuesday.

Since the 2006 elections, Montanans have been able to register to vote on Election Day and then cast their ballots until 8 p.m. on that day. A total of 28,329 Montanans have done so in elections since then, according to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.

Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Mike McGrath said although the language of the title of LR-126 may not have been the best conceivable statement, “we are reluctant to take the extraordinary step of nullifying its placement on the ballot.”

Citing state Supreme Court precedents, McGrath said, “these principles counsel in favor of allowing the measure to proceed to a vote.”

McGrath said the court majority agrees with those challenging LR-126 that the reference to compliance with the federal law, alongside the elimination of Election Day voter registration, “may lead to confusion in the voting booth.”

As a result, the court directed Fox to revise the LR-126 statement so it complies with the order.

In his dissent, Justice Mike Wheat said he would have granted the motion to remove LR-126 from the ballot.

“It is undeniable that same-day voter registration has absolutely nothing to do with compliance with the NVRA (National Voter Registration Act),” Wheat said. “Thus, the statement in the title of LR-126 to the contrary is a fatal defect that cannot be cured.”

In response to the decision, AG spokesman John Barnes said, “Attorney General Fox appreciates that the state Supreme Court has honored Montana voters’ constitutional right to engage in direct democracy through the referendum process by allowing LR-126 to remain on the ballot.”

MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver said the referendum “is still voter suppression.” If passed, Feaver said LR-126 will make it harder for certain people to vote, specifically those who have moved, students, military personnel and Native Americans.

The teachers’ union leader said the groups would closely monitor the revised statement the Attorney General’s Office writes and would challenge it if necessary.

“You effectively had a fraudulent statement in there that would have led some voters to believe they were complying with the National Voter Registration Act by ending same-day voter registration,” Feaver said.

***

LR-126 and LR-127, which seeks to change Montana’s primary elections, were among the most contentious issues before the 2013 Legislature.

The bills were introduced shortly before the deadline for the Senate to act on them and assigned to a committee that normally doesn’t consider election bills.

During the floor debate, Democratic senators pounded their desks in protest and used a parliamentary stalling tactic in an attempt to prevent the Republican majority from voting on them that day and thus miss a key deadline.

The move failed as Senate Republicans rammed the bills through over Democrats’ protests.

Other groups that joined the MEA-MFT in the challenge were the Montana AFL-CIO, Montana Public Employees Association, Montana Human Rights Network, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Montana Women Vote and Western Native Voice.

The MEA-MFT and some groups also have challenged LR-127, which would change Montana’s primary election system to a “top-two” primary system. Under the proposal, all candidates from all parties for an office would appear on a single primary ballot. The top two vote-getters for each office, regardless of party, would advance to the general election.

The Supreme Court hasn’t issued an opinion on the LR-127 challenge yet.

Chuck Johnson is chief of the Lee Newspapers State Bureau in Helena. He can be reached by email at: chuck.johnson@lee.net or by phone at (406) 447-4066 or (800) 525-4920.

(7) comments

sew2
sew2

I think people fool themselves if they think its voter suppression. If 28,000 people can show up on Election Day to vote I am sure there is a day during the other 364 they could pre-register.

idiot state
idiot state

Say..... Why do big labor unions in Montana want to discourage voter responsibility and accountability and fair elections? Is it..is it because..they want a free- for- all, zero accountability, come as you are, do what you want, no questions asked voting? Why would that be? They're not..they're not for voter fraud...are they? Naw. Couldn't be. Why...voter fraud would be illegal and cancel out the votes of honest legitimate votes and maybe help elect...Naw. Couldn't be. Let's give the big labor unions the benefit of the doubt on this; they always work in everyone's best interest. NOT just the Democrats. That's just an old wives' tale. The big bosses of the labor unions aren't corrupt and dishonest. That's a myth. lol..

Roger
Roger

Why would any reasonable person advocate for voter fraud by allowing people to register on election day? This is an open invitation to voter fraud. Anyone who claims vote fraud is not an issue must be crazy - the city of Chicago, for example, has a tradition of keeping dead people registered to vote.

montanamuralist
montanamuralist

Totally agree...the Mr. Potter Party Republicans are doing this all over the country to try and effect demographics rather than any issue with fraud. there is no issue with fraud!!!! There is an issue with the Potter's not liking who we elect...I understand the Supreme Court decision but have faith in Montanans axing this junk referendum.

BJackson
BJackson

I don't think it is junk and I don't know anyone what thinks it is junk, responsibility is a very important issue and your name calling has nothing to do with it.

American Plutocracy
American Plutocracy

While I understand the MTSC decision as a matter of law that does not make the legislative decision anything more than a joke. Another step toward making voting more difficult across the country under the guise of decreasing the virtually non-existent 'voter fraud'. It becomes even more amusing when one reads the justifications and, if at all possible, hysterically funny against the backdrop of Republican driven redistricting across the country.

Restricting voter access, irrespective of party, is something voters should resist - yet there are some who value their partisanship more than they value their country.

BJackson
BJackson

Unless it is a "special" election, we all know when the general vote occurs, there is no reason to not get registered and be prepared to vote before the actual vote happens. If we are going to allow early voting, online voting and other evolutions of voting, then there is no reason to be unprepared on the day of the vote. I agree, cut the registration off on the prior Friday, everyone can register when they get their DL, even with a few problems with that process, very few have ever been denied the ability to vote.


If you take your responsibility of voting serious, then there is no reason to not make sure you are prepared. I also think you should be required to show proof of legal status before you can vote, here in Montana, you can still vote a provisional without ID, this is one of the biggest responsibilities we have, take it seriously.

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