When Rep. Sharon Greef rose on the floor of the Montana House of Representatives Feb. 4, she began her remarks with a simple statement. Voting, she said, is a right that comes with responsibility. The Republican from Florence explained that elections don’t drop out of the sky, and to ensure those elections are clean and fair, it’s vital that voters not wait to register until the eleventh hour.

With that, Greef asked her fellow lawmakers to end same-day voter registration, which has been the law of the land since 2005. “The focus of this bill is not to burden, or to disenfranchise,” she said. “It is to administer an election with complete fairness for all voters.”

The hearing that followed Greef’s introduction of House Bill 176 lasted nearly an hour, with Democrats and Republicans arguing over the proposal’s impacts on Montana voters, election officials and democracy itself. Neither side disputed that the integrity of the democratic process lay at the core of their deliberation. But HB 176, which would close late voter registration at noon on the Monday before Election Day, mapped a dividing line between them. On one side stood a group of lawmakers who believe that election integrity is a whisper away from being compromised, if it hasn’t been already. And on the other, a group of lawmakers who maintain that reactions stemming from fear and unfounded claims only threaten to erode the election integrity Montana already enjoys.

In the wake of a 2020 presidential election plagued by unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud, the Montana Legislature has become a hotbed of debate on the issue of “election integrity.” The phrase has been used in introductions and supporting testimony on several bills, including HB 176 and Senate Bill 169, a proposal by Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, that would require voters to provide a valid photo ID in order to register. Both bills have been endorsed by Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen. In a hearing before the Senate State Administration Committee Feb. 3, Cuffe said SB 169 could be “the most important bill I will ever carry in my legislative career.”

“Election integrity is truly the rock, it’s the cornerstone of our nation, the cornerstone of our governments,” Cuffe said. “People all over our nation are begging for integrity.”

President Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen or rigged have been roundly rejected in the intervening months by courts and by scores of officials on both sides of the aisle. Contrary to assertions that election integrity was compromised, the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said in a joint statement Nov. 12 that the 2020 general election was “the most secure in American history.” The statement went on to say, “While we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our elections, we can assure you we have the utmost confidence in the security and integrity of our elections, and you should too.”

Similar statements countering allegations of fraud or insecurity in the 2020 election were issued late last year by the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the Wisconsin Supreme Court and numerous state elected officials around the country.

Even so, proponent testimony on Cuffe’s voter ID bill revealed exactly how profound an effect last year’s election results are having on the 2021 Legislature’s discussion of election law changes. Cindi Hamilton, a Bitterroot Valley resident who spoke in favor of SB 169, characterized the 2020 election as “the most corrupt, third-world, banana republic election we could ever imagine.” The statement fueled a brief interjection as Rep. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, objected, saying Hamilton’s testimony strayed from the bill’s topic. Hamilton continued.

“My friends and myself,” she said, “at this point in time, after having been through the last several months, we would really love to see, as a prerequisite for voting, photo ID, signature, current utility bill, birth certificate, password, answer to three secret questions, fingerprint and a DNA sample. No, I’m just kidding. Kind of. Not really.”

SB 169 passed its second reading on the Senate floor Feb. 10.

This isn’t the first time Montana has seen bills aimed at revising registration requirements or rolling back deadlines, and Montana isn’t the only state experiencing a post-2020 revival of such measures. According to a Jan. 26 research report by the Brennan Center for Justice, 106 proposals to restrict voting access have been requested or carried in 28 states so far in 2021. Those proposals include imposing limitations on absentee voting, adopting more stringent voter ID requirements and requiring more aggressive voter roll review procedures. With regard to voter rolls, Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, is carrying a bill to require county election administrators to review their voter registration lists annually. That process currently occurs every odd-numbered year.

With HB 176 in particular, several Republican lawmakers have gone so far as to frame voting in terms of privilege more than right. It’s a stance that has served to bolster their party’s desired alterations to Montana elections. It has also revealed how deep the divide on the issue can run. Sen. Bryce Bennett, a Missoula Democrat who has spent a good chunk of his seven-session legislative career on election policy, couldn’t disagree more.

“They’re wrong,” Bennett told Montana Free Press. “I mean, we are privileged in that we have a right to cast a ballot. It’s in black and white in Montana’s Constitution. It’s not up for debate whether that right exists or does not.”

Last fall’s election has also inspired a renewed push nationally for more expansive voter access laws. Nearly every state in the county noted record voter turnout in 2020. The Pew Research Center estimated last month that roughly two-thirds of eligible voters in the United States cast a ballot in the presidential election. Many officials, analysts and voter-rights organizations attribute that rise to mail voting implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Brennan Center’s roundup shows that 406 bills to expand voting rights and voter access have been introduced across 35 states. Thirteen of those states are considering legislation to establish same-day voter registration, the very practice Montana and three other states are discussing eliminating. Currently 21 states including Montana have same-day registration. 

Here in Montana, several expansive election bills have entered the legislative pipeline. House Bill 287, carried by Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, would provide state funding for return postage on absentee ballots. A single stamp may not seem like much, but according to Keaton Sunchild, political director for Montana Native Vote, the savings it represents to voters in impoverished communities is significant.

“When you’re talking 55 cents in a house of maybe three or four voters, that’s maybe food for the evening or gas to get to work the next morning,” Sunchild told MTFP.

Bennett had hoped to extend the regular voter registration period to 10 days before the election, allowing Montanans more time to submit those forms by mail. His Senate Bill 107 drew support from student groups and individual Montanans as well as the Montana League of Women Voters. Speaking on the league’s behalf, President Nancy Leifer said the deadline change would ease registration for voters by not requiring them to travel in-person to their county’s elections office, which is currently a requirement for people registering within 30 days of an election.

“The primary and general election in 2020 both used the extended registration called for in this bill,” Leifer testified. “Our election officials have experienced closing regular registration 10 days before the election and it worked well.”

SB 107 was tabled in the Senate State Administration Committee last week.

Supporters of all these proposed changes to election law have presented a universe of justifications. Long lines at the polls on Election Day, overworked election administrators juggling multiple duties, voters frustrated or disaffected by the process — such anecdotal images have in one way or another factored into the debate at every turn. Whether they’re supported by evidence or not hasn’t altered the hold they have on the Legislature’s work, as indicated by a statement Rep. John Fuller, R-Kalispell, made in support of eliminating same-day voter registration last week.

“This country was almost divided and torn apart by the idea that elections might be or were being stolen,” Fuller said on the House floor. “Regardless of whether that is the case, the reality is that this bill helps us make one step toward ensuring the integrity of the elections. The integrity of fair, principled and equal elections is vital to our democratic process.”

HB 176 passed the House on a mostly party-line vote Feb. 5. It is currently scheduled for a hearing in the Senate State Administration Committee on Feb. 17.

In a deeper sense, Sunchild said, the debate over election integrity swirling around these bills now carries a hint of irony. Republicans swept every statewide office on the 2020 ballot, and it seems odd to him that those same officials are justifying legislation by raising doubts about the security of Montana’s elections.

“It’s kind of funny,” Sunchild said, “that the same election that put all of these people in power, from Gov. [Greg] Gianforte down, is almost being called into question.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...