A voter registration form paper copy in the USA is shown up close, with a hand holding a pen about to fill out the sheet. Credit: Adobe stock. May not be republished without license.

Debate at the Legislature turned to the issue of voter rights Thursday morning, as members of the House State Administration Committee heard testimony on a proposal to end same-day voter registration in Montana. Proponents said the change would calm Election Day chaos for local election administrators and reduce the likelihood of voter fraud. Those voices were outnumbered by opponents who criticized the proposal as a threat to the rights of thousands of Montanans and to democracy generally.

The argument centered on House Bill 176, which would close late registration for Montana voters at 5 p.m. the Friday before an election. Under current law, the registration period remains open until polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, said HB 176 is the first of several “election integrity” measures slated to appear this session.

“We are blessed with the privilege of voting, but we also must accept responsibility for that privilege,” Greef said. “Elections don’t pop up out of the blue and surprise us. If we are a responsible voter, we study the ballot ahead of time, and we also need to know that we need to register to vote.”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states and the District of Columbia had same-day voter registration policies on the books as of last year. Montana enacted its law in 2005, and bills seeking to overturn that law have popped up routinely since at least 2013.

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen spoke briefly in support of HB 176, as did Dana Corson, elections director at the secretary of state’s office. Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, joined them, informing the committee that Montana elections are “heading for a trainwreck” if efforts aren’t taken to reduce the Election Day workload of local officials and allow them to focus solely on the vote. Cuffe carried similar legislation in the 2019 session, and said his only regret in reading Greef’s bill was that “I wanted my name there.”

Broadwater County Election Administrator Doug Ellis detailed his own Election Day experiences for lawmakers while testifying in favor of HB 176. He painted a picture of long hours and endless work managing polls while continuing to accept voter registration forms. Like election officials in many other rural Montana counties, Ellis holds a number of other offices as well, including clerk and recorder and school superintendent.

“Elections is probably by far the most trying position that I have, and a lot of it is because of same-day registration,” Ellis said. “It’s extremely hard to put information of all of the voters into the system, get their ballots counted and keep the numbers correct while you’re still registering people to vote.” 

The bulk of testimony on HB 176, however, came from advocates for students, the elderly, indigenous communities and disabled Montanans urging the committee to vote the measure down. Katjana Stutzer, a lobbyist for the Montana Public Interest Research Group, or MontPIRG, noted that during the 2018 general election, 54 of the state’s 56 counties logged at least one same-day registrant. Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg said later in the hearing that 171 voters in her county registered during the final two days of the 2020 general election — votes that would not have been cast if HB 176 were in effect.

Additional arguments against the bill focused on the challenges that newly admitted residents at assisted living facilities face in completing or updating their voter registration status, and on the obstacles people working non-traditional hours or living long distances from county courthouses contend with when trying to engage in the democratic process. At least a half-dozen opponents cited the fate of Legislative Referendum 126, a 2014 ballot measure to end same-day registration that was voted down by 56% of voters, as evidence that Montanans have already voiced their stance on the issue.

As varied as the oppositional testimony was, each argument circled back to the belief that ending same-day voter registration would rob Montanans of a right guaranteed by both the U.S. and state constitutions.

“These constitutional imperatives are something we ought to strive toward, not back away from,” said the ACLU of Montana’s Sam Forstag. 

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.