HELENA — Montana voters will decide in November whether to end a nine-year practice of Election Day voter registration for future elections.
If the referendum appearing on the ballot as LR-126 passes, the voter registration deadline would move to 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day.
In 2013, the Republican-led Legislature voted to put the issue on this year's ballot. Making it a referendum instead of a bill sidestepped a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock.
"It's something that directly affects the voters and the voting process, and I just thought it should be something the people should vote on," said the measure's main sponsor, Republican Sen. Alan Olson of Roundup. He said he introduced the legislation after hearing comments about "chaos" caused by Election-Day voter registration.
"It clogs up the system on Election Day," Olson said. "I feel there's ample opportunity for people to register by the Friday before elections."
More than 29,000 Montanans have registered and voted on Election Day since the law went into effect in 2006, according to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. She supports the current law.
"You don't fix administrative problems by turning people away from the polls," McCulloch, a Democrat, said. "You just don't."
McCulloch said the increasing number of those voting by absentee ballot should help to alleviate any long lines at the polls in the future. In the June primary elections, 69 percent of the votes cast were done by absentee ballot, she said.
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When late voter registration passed through the state legislature in 2005, it allowed for voters to register in the 30 days before an election. The measure had wide bipartisan support, according to McCulloch.
Olson said he's not looking to repeal the measure, just rein it in by two days. He cited overworked county election staff and protection from fraud as other reasons to pass the referendum.
"Voting is a right, but all rights come with responsibilities," he said. "I don't think anybody can say it with any credibility that this takes away a person's right to vote."
Those with the Montana American Civil Liberties Union disagree. They've joined with other organizations to create a group called Montanans for Free and Fair Elections, to oppose the measure.
"Montana should be proud to have this in place," ALCU spokeswoman Amy Cannata said of Election Day voter registration. "The last thing we want to do is create more obstacles to voting."
Montana is one of 10 states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming, plus the District of Columbia that allows voter registration on Election Day, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. California and Illinois have enacted Election-Day registration but have not yet implemented it.
None of the states that have it have ever repealed it, McCulloch said.