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Ballot collection restrictions partially resurrected, passed by Senate
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Ballot collection restrictions partially resurrected, passed by Senate

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Montana State News Bureau Chief Holly Michels summarizes the day's news from the Montana Legislative session for April 27, 2021.

Less than two weeks after a bill to restrict ballot collection was voted down by the Senate, Republican lawmakers resurrected a portion of the measure into a separate piece of election legislation Monday.

The amended bill prohibits anyone from turning in another person’s ballot if they receive a “pecuniary benefit” for doing so. The Senate added that language into House Bill 530, which had been a relatively uncontroversial measure granting rulemaking authority to update election security to the Secretary of State. It sailed through the House unanimously at the beginning of March.

But Democrats in the Senate objected to the amendment on Monday, which was added to the bill by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, noted that the term “pecuniary benefit” is not defined in the bill and argued that could be construed broadly.

“This means, whether intended or not, that caregivers, for people with disabilities, people that work at senior living homes, they can’t help people” with their ballots, Bennett said, noting that the provision also applies to helping them request ballots.

The previous attempt to pass that legislation, House Bill 406, failed to clear the Senate on a 23-27 vote earlier this month.

That bill had sought to outlaw a practice commonly used by get-out-the-vote groups, in which organizations submit mail-in ballots collected from voters. Under the measure, voters could have still let family members and legal guardians submit their ballots for them, but they would have been be required to enter their personal information into a state registry subject to public information laws.

HB 406 was itself a revamped version of the Ballot Interference Protection Act (BIPA), a law that had been passed overwhelming by Montana voters in a 2018 referendum but was struck down last year by a pair of state district court judges as unconstitutional.

Fitzpatrick, arguing for the amended legislation, reiterated Republican arguments from previous versions of BIPA that ballot collection could lead to voter fraud. Few instances of such fraud have been documented, although an incident in North Carolina led to a do-over of a Congressional race in 2018. Fitzpatrick also disagreed with Bennett’s interpretation.

“This is where you were paid to go out and ballot harvest, and we know that in some counties in the state there are people going door to door being paid to harvest ballots,” Fitzpatrick said.

The amendment passed on a 30-20 vote, and the amended version of the bill passed on a party-line, 31-19 vote.

HB 530 is sponsored by Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm, and as originally written had been identified as a priority by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen.

Having cleared the Senate, House Bill 530 still needs to go back to the House to consider the amendment.

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