A bill that proposed wide-reaching impacts on Montana’s mail-in ballot system was tabled by a House committee Tuesday, after a Republican on the panel criticized it as “like going back 100 years with the election law.”
“This bill is probably the worst bill I’ve seen all session, if you want to know the truth of the matter,” Rep. Geraldine Custer, a Forsyth Republican and a retired clerk and recorder for Rosebud County, said during discussion on the bill. “It just needs to die.”
The House State Administration Committee voted unanimously to table House Bill 455, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, a Republican from Great Falls. It would have drastically curtailed the state’s mail-in ballot system, including eliminating the ability to remain on a list to receive an absentee ballot each year, prohibiting mail-in or replacement ballots from being issued within seven days of an election and eliminating special provisions to allow overseas military voters more flexibility.
Sheldon-Galloway noted during the bill's hearing on Monday that she was bringing the bill at the behest of one of her constituents, Tony Rausch, who called the measure “a rather simple bill.”
“What this is doing is eliminating the list and it is requiring you to sign up, so we don’t have these thousands of ballots floating around from people who have moved out of the state or died,” Rausch said.
A steady stream of opponents spoke against the bill, many speed-talking their way through testimony to satisfy the one-minute time limit set by the committee chair, Rep. Wendy McKamey, R-Ulm. Representatives for voting rights groups, Native American organizations, people with disabilities, civil rights groups and the Montana Federation of State Employees all spoke against the measure.
Beth Brenneman, an attorney with Disability Rights Montana, said that the measure included “an explicit elimination of an option to deliver a ballot for people with disabilities.”
Browning Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, a Democrat on the committee, also pointed out in the Monday hearing that the bill's prohibition on ballots being mailed to P.O. boxes would effectively disenfranchise many Native American voters living on the state’s rural Indian reservations that lack postal delivery service.
The committee voted unanimously to table the bill Tuesday, after tabling two other elections-related bills.
House Bill 371, which sought to strike the requirement that candidates for state superintendent of public education possess a bachelor’s degree or equivalent education, along with a teaching certification, failed to pass the committee on an 8-11 vote before being tabled.
And the committee also tabled a proposal Tuesday to make it easier for independent candidates to get on the ballot for local and legislative races, after narrowly failing to pass the bill by a 9-10 vote.
Montana law requires that any candidate not affiliated with the two major parties in state has to get signatures from at least 5% of the number of votes for the winning candidate in the last election. Under House Bill 347, those candidates would have needed just 50 signatures to qualify for the ballot as a state House candidate, and 100 signatures for state Senate or county commission.