The Montana legislature is considering a bill that would eliminate same-day voter registration in Montana. House Bill 30 is sponsored by Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, and would push to end voter registration the Friday before the election.
The bill is an attempt to deal with the chaos that sometimes surrounds general elections in Montana. This past November could have been the case that illustrated a need for some sort of change.
This past Election Day, election officials in many Montana communities, including Helena, faced long lines of people waiting to register to vote. The long lines led to congestion at county offices and opened the door to electioneering tactics, such as people wearing campaign T-shirts and handing out campaign pens or clipboards, said Paulette DeHart, Lewis and Clark County Clerk and Recorder.
There’s no doubt that same-day voter registration complicated things this past Election Day, she said. In fact, most of her time that day was spent monitoring the waiting lines to keep an eye out for any electioneering activities. Under Montana law, no campaign material is allowed within 100 feet of a polling place.
However, the efforts from the Legislature should be to adopt more meaningful changes to the voting process and not limiting registration.
One significant change could be moving to all mail-in ballots. This would eliminate the mad rush of Election Day and people would still have an opportunity to vote at the courthouse with an absentee ballot.
This past November, about 18,000 people in Lewis and Clark County voted absentee, with about 14,000 voting in person. Mail-in ballots are a trend anyway and something election officials all around the state are set up for.
In the 2011 legislative session, a bill was voted down that would have moved Montana’s elections to a mail-in ballot format.
We think this is something legislators should take up again this session.
Another complication this past Election Day was that absentee ballots had to be folded three times to fit in the return envelope. The folded ballots sometimes fouled in the counting machines, holding up the counting process even further. Larger envelopes would fix the problem, but would cost more for both the county and the voters. However, reducing the number of jammed counting machines could cut down on wages paid out on election night.
Probably the easiest fix to a chaotic Election Day is for people to know and understand their voting status and to make sure they’re registered before Election Day rolls around. According to DeHart, many people waited in long lines only to find out they were registered and had to hustle back to their polling place to fill out their ballots. If people knew beforehand where they had to go to vote and what they had to do to get registered, Election Day would certainly go much smoother.
But all these solutions keep intact the 2005 law allowing same-day voter registration, which is a good thing for people who need it. In a country where we need every vote to count, and need every eligible voter engaged in the process, putting up any barrier to voter registration, which HB30 does, seems shortsighted.