State GOP challenges eligibility of voters

State GOP challenges eligibility of voters

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The state Republican Party this week challenged the eligibility of 6,000 registered Montana voters in seven counties historically considered Democratic strongholds.

More than half of the people challenged statewide live, or previously lived, in Missoula County.

Montanans who are registered to vote in Missoula, Butte-Silver Bow, Lewis and Clark, Deerlodge, Glacier or Hill counties and who filled out a change-of-address card with the U.S. Postal Service in the past 18 months will likely have to verify their correct place of residence before the Nov. 4 election.

Ignoring the situation, at the very worst, could disqualify a person's ballot.

"The integrity of the voting process is something that has to be above reproach to have faith in the system," state GOP executive director Jacob Eaton said. "We aren't trying to prevent anyone from voting. We want people to register properly."

The search for Montanans who have failed to update their address on their voter registration was sparked by comments made by Gov. Brian Schweitzer to the American Association for Justice at a meeting in Philadelphia this summer, Eaton said.

"With Schweitzer's recent comments about rigging the '06 election, that brought everyone in the state to a new level of suspicion and awareness of the integrity of our elections," he said.

Democrats, however, are crying foul, describing the challenge as a "desperate" attempt by Republicans to keep Montanans from casting ballots in November.

"The more people that vote, the better Democrats do," said state Democratic Party spokesman Kevin O'Brien. "Voting is a right. To prevent people from doing that is desperate. It's their only strategy."

O'Brien added that "at some point, they won't be able to use a bad joke … for every one of their shenanigans."

Only twice in the past 15 years has Missoula County election administrator Vickie Zeier had anyone try to challenge another voter's eligibility.

With 30 days until the election, several thousand challenges could not come at a worse time. Election offices around Montana are busy preparing to mail out thousands of absentee ballots, entering voter registration cards and preparing for late-day registration that begins next week.

Election officials have five days - or until Friday - to notify challenged voters.

"I'm not very happy, obviously," said Zeier, who "about freaked" when the request appeared in her office on Monday afternoon.

In Missoula County, 3,422 voter registrations are being challenged. "I could've quit right then," Zeier said.

The state Republican Party cross-referenced the relatively new statewide voter database with the National Change of Address database, a commercial software system for direct marketers, in order to identify electors who aren't living where they are registered to vote. The targeted counties had the highest number of discrepancies, Eaton said.

When asked about the Democratic lean in these seven counties, Eaton replied, "I can't argue with the data. This is not an ideological thing. It's about ensuring the integrity of the elections."

Democrats don't think it's a coincidence.

"Thirty days out from the election, and their only strategy for winning is to prevent people on college campuses and in Indian County from voting?" O'Brien said. "They have no new ideas."

Christopher Muste, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Montana who teaches American politics, considers the Republicans' behavior to be worse than voter intimidation, which involves direct threats and coercion. The Republicans' approach involves going straight to election officials to try to clear voters from registration rolls in those counties.

Clarification - An article in Thursday's Missoulian misinterpreted University of Montana political science assistant professor Christopher Muste's thoughts on a story about the state Republican Party challenging voters' eligibility.

Muste said that challenging voters is worse for the Democratic Party because the approach doesn't actually intimidate voters, but directly disenfranchises them by removing them from the registered voters list.

Secretary of State Brad Johnson, a Republican, is empathetic to the extra work the challenges created for election administrators, said spokesman Bowen Greenwood, but "any elector has the ability to challenge voters and no one wants to deny that."

In Butte-Silver Bow, where the Republicans are challenging 714 voters, elections administrator Mary McMahon has asked the county attorney to review the issue. She'd also like the Republican Party to have to pay for the postage.

"We're slammed," she said. "We'll get them all out, but it is just very frustrating right now to get this kind of reaction from either party and have to deal with it."

On Wednesday, Zeier examined the paper cuts on her hands after signing 1,300 letters informing voters that they've been challenged. Zeier has 2,100 left to go.

Of the 3,422 voters being challenged in Missoula County, 900 have a new address outside the county and 200 are outside the state.

Challenged voters with out-of-county and out-of-state addresses will receive an affidavit asking them to verify their current address, along with a voter registration card. This information must be returned to the elections office by Nov. 4.

Failing to do so may require a person to vote provisionally, meaning there's a problem with the ballot. Provisional ballots must be resolved by the end of the day on Nov. 5 - the day after the election - to count. That may mean showing proof of residency.

Also, Missoula County is rejecting the Republicans' challenge of more than 2,000 voters who have moved across town or within the county.

Deputy County Attorney Mike Sehestedt argues that all voters are allowed to vote in one election at their old precinct, as long as they update their voter registration card after that time.

Those folks will get reminders from the elections office asking them to update their voter information.

Eaton disagrees with that notion. Most of these individuals voted in June's primary election, he argued, meaning they've already used their free pass.

"That is like saying it's OK to run red lights as long as you don't hit anybody," Eaton said. "The purpose of this is to make sure folks are within the law."

Montana Standard reporter Justin Post contributed to this story.

Reporter Chelsi Moy can be reached at 523-5260 or at chelsi.moy@missoulian.com.

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