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Bill would check governor's power to change election rules
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Bill would check governor's power to change election rules

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The authority that then-Gov. Steve Bullock used to allow counties in Montana to conduct all-mail ballot elections in the midst of the pandemic last year would be subject to the Legislature’s approval under a bill proposed by a Conrad lawmaker.

“The ability for one individual to unilaterally change the law in elections, when elections matters are critical to this form of government, caused great angst on the ground,” Jones told the House State Administration Committee during the hearing on House Bill 429. “We have a lack now of public confidence in some of our election outcomes, not because there’s any proof of that, but because the public perceived a weakness.”

Last year, Bullock, a Democrat, invoked his emergency authority to allow the state’s counties to close polling places and shift the primary election to mail-ballot-only, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. All 56 counties chose to hold the June 2 primary by mail.

Bullock again issued a directive in August to allow the same for the general election, following calls from the Montana Association of Clerks and Records and the Montana Association of Counties that he do so. The move was opposed by some Republican groups, including the reelection campaign of President Donald Trump, which lost its legal challenge to the emergency order.

All but 11 counties in the state ultimately chose to conduct the general election by mail ballots only.

Jones’ bill would put the brakes on future emergency orders affecting elections until majorities in both the House and Senate vote to allow them. The governor would have to request the Secretary of State conduct a poll of legislators to decide whether the emergency order can be enacted.

No one testified as an opponent or proponent to the bill.

The committee also discussed a pair of bills that have been pushed by Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen.

Senate Bill 170 would direct counties to check their rolls for inactive voters every year, rather than the current every-other-year requirement.

The Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders remained neutral on the bill. The group’s legislative chair, Regina Plettenberg, said they generally have no problem cleaning their rolls more often, as long as the new law wouldn’t conflict with existing statute.

Voters are moved from active to inactive status only after a pair of notices mailed to the voter’s last known address — spread out by at least 30 days — have failed to elicit a response from the voter. Plettenberg noted that isn’t the same as “purging” voter lists. Inactive voters aren’t actually removed from the lists for another two general elections.

The committee also heard testimony on Senate Bill 169, which proposes making Montana’s voter identification laws stricter by adding new restrictions on the types of photo ID that are acceptable to register or cast a ballot in person.

Jacobsen called that bill her “No. 1 priority” this session, while voting rights groups and Democrats have cast the measure as an attempt at voter suppression that would erect new barriers to voting for specific groups, including college students and Native Americans.

It cleared the Senate last week on a 31-19 vote, with Democrats unified in opposition.

Also Friday, the Montana House narrowly voted to give initial approval to a bill that would change the definition of a dependent for tax purposes, with much of the debate centered on students living and voting in counties when they are claimed as dependent by parents in other places.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, is carrying House Bill 240. Despite pushback, Tschida said the bill is about property tax relief by barring “temporary” residents from voting in local elections. The bill accomplishes this by requiring voters being claimed as dependents to register the address of person or persons claiming them as their permanent address.

The bill saw opposition from representatives on both sides of the aisle. Democrats speaking against the bill felt it targeted students who want to have a voice in the communities they’re living in, while some Republicans said it would be difficult to track voters with dependents and muddied the lines between tax and voting policy.

Republicans speaking in favor said the bill offered those students the choice of whether to remain dependents or become permanent residents of places such as Gallatin and Missoula counties.

HB 240 passed second reading on a vote of 52-48 and must pass a third reading in order to head to the Senate.

— Deputy Bureau Chief Tom Kuglin contributed to this story.

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