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Gov. says new law stops dead people from voting, but MT law technically allows it

Gov. Greg Gianforte told the Montana Republican Party State Officers' Convention in a lunchtime speech Friday that changes to state voting laws would stop dead people from voting in Montana.

"We're strengthening our election laws. We're making sure Montana elections are fair, accurate and free of fraud," Gianforte, a Republican, said. "We ended same-day voter registration. And now you need a photo ID to vote. We're cleaning up our voter rolls so dead people don't vote anymore."

A spokesperson said Gianforte was citing Senate Bill 170, which requires annual voter registration list maintenance. But the new law does not change a state statue allowing the vote of an elector who returns their completed absentee ballot and then dies before Election Day to be counted.

Previously voter registration list maintenance was done in odd-numbered years. The bill changing that to annually was carried by Republican Sen. Doug Kary at the request of Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen. At the GOP convention Saturday, Jacobsen said the legislation was prompted by 32,000 undeliverable ballots in last year's primary, which was held by mail because of the pandemic.

Updating the voter rolls involves comparing the list of registered voters against national address change files and confirming voter addresses.

In response to an email asking if there was an instance of a ballot being cast in Montana under the name of a dead person, a Gianforte spokesperson sent a link to a Bozeman Daily Chronicle story from 2016 that cited the section of state code saying if a person votes by absentee ballot and mails or returns it to the election administrator and then dies before Election Day, the deceased elector's ballot must be counted

That story said the secretary of state's office, then under Democrat Linda McCulloch, did not track how often that situation happens, but cited a former clerk and recorder in Gallatin County as saying anecdotally it had happened.

Counties regularly receive lists of residents who died and use them to update voter rolls.

Prior to the 2005 legislative session, ballots sent in by people who later died weren't counted. But a bill that passed with wide bipartisan margins that year, with a 44-6 vote in the Senate (where Democrats held a four-vote majority) and a 70-30 vote in the evenly divided House, changed that. Notable supporters in that session included Elsie Arntzen, who is now head of the Office of Public Instruction, and former Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, both Republicans. The bill was carried by Democratic Sen. Kim Gillan.

Regina Plettenberg, legislative chair of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, said last week there's not any indication ballots are being improperly cast under the name of dead people in Montana.

"I do agree that (SB 170) will keep our rolls cleaner but I don't think there's ever been any evidence that I'm aware of that we’ve been letting deceased voters vote," Plettenberg said.

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