Gov. Greg Gianforte signs House Bill 176 on April 19, 2021. Credit: Courtesy office of Gov. Greg Gianforte

Gov. Greg Gianforte has officially ended the state’s long-standing practice of allowing citizens to register to vote on Election Day, a change he said will help preserve the integrity of Montana’s elections, but that critics have decried as a blatant attack on voter rights.

Under House Bill 176, which Gianforte signed into law Monday, Montana voters will now be required to register no later than noon on the day before an election. Gianforte also signed Senate Bill 169, meaning any voter who does not have a government-issued photo ID or a state concealed carry permit must produce two forms of identification in order to cast a ballot at the polls. Both bills passed the Legislature on largely party-line votes after months of heated testimony that made voting rules one of the more contested issues of the 2021 session.

“Montana has a long history of secure, transparent elections, setting a standard for the nation,” Gianforte said in a statement announcing the changes. “These new laws will help ensure the continued integrity of Montana’s elections for years to come.”

The new laws were specifically requested by Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who was present at the bill signing. Jacobsen also released a statement Monday saying “voter ID and voter registration deadlines are best practices in protecting the integrity of elections.”

Voting rights advocates had a different take. Keaton Sunchild, political director for Western Native Voice, said ending same-day registration is a “slap in the face” to Montanans and signals a “lack of trust” among elected officials in an electorate that approved same-day voter registration as a ballot measure in 2004. Sunchild called the new voter ID requirement a “modern-day poll tax” for its requirement that voters pay for a government-issued ID in order to vote, a financial barrier for low-income Montanans. Western Native Voice is one of several groups that asked Gianforte to veto SB 169, informing him in a letter that it would “undoubtedly head straight to the courts” if it became law. Other opponents of the bill included the ACLU of Montana, Forward Montana and the Montana Public Interest Research Group, or MontPIRG.

Speaking to Montana Free Press Monday, Sunchild said Western Native Voice and other voting rights advocates are now discussing legal action to challenge the new laws. Regarding HB 176 in particular, Sunchild said another avenue could be to take the issue back to voters in the form of another ballot initiative to ask whether their view on same-day registration has changed since 2004.

“We’re exploring legal paths forward, if this is something we can fight in court, and if so getting that ball rolling here so that people that want to vote in the 2022 election can do so freely without these undue restrictions,” Sunchild said.

latest stories

What’s next for water quality?

Montana is positioned to become the first state to strike numeric standards for nitrogen and phosphorus — just six years after becoming the first state to adopt them. How Montana will enforce water quality instead isn’t yet clear.

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.