HELENA — Last November, 8,172 Montanans registered to vote or updated their voter status on Election Day, according to data released Thursday by Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen. That’s the second highest use of same-day voter registration in a general election since Montana adopted the practice in 2006.

The data on Election Day activity last year coincided with the launch of a new online data portal that Jacobsen said will provide the public with a clearer picture of how many Montanans have taken advantage of late registration opportunities — opportunities that include same-day registration, which the Legislature and Gov. Greg Gianforte ended this spring at Jacobsen’s request.

“The new platform improves the ability to search the voter registration data and offers more definite and comprehensive information from the late registration period,” Jacobsen said in a statement.

The platform offers insight into how widely late registration opportunities were used by voters in the 2020 election. In addition to same-day registrants, 7,790 Montanans either registered to vote or updated their voter status during last year’s late registration period, which ran from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2. The state recorded its highest late registration totals in 2016, with 15,311 utilizing the late registration period that year and 12,055 voters registering or updating their status on Election Day.

While the bulk of the Election Day registration activity in 2020 was concentrated in Montana’s populous urban counties, numerous rural counties recorded dozens of voters who did more than just cast a ballot at the polls. A handful recorded more than 100 such interactions, including Beaverhead, Fergus and Richland counties.

Same-day registration numbers were frequently cited by voting rights advocates in the 67th Montana Legislature as reasons to oppose a string of proposed election law changes, among them House Bill 176 that ended same-day registration outright. The new law closes the late registration period at noon the day before an election. Two separate lawsuits have since been filed in Yellowstone County District Court challenging the change, one by the Montana Democratic Party and the other by a coalition of Montana tribes and Native American voting rights groups.

Jacobsen sought the dismissal of the Montana Democratic Party’s lawsuit earlier this month, claiming the organization did not have standing to challenge the constitutionality of HB 176 and Senate Bill 169, which tightened photo identification requirements for voters. Attorneys for her office argued that the Montana Constitution grants the Legislature full discretion over Election Day registration and that ending the practice will ensure that votes are “counted and reported quickly.”

“HB 176 serves this goal because it frees election administrators to count votes on Election Day without also being required to process voter registrations,” they wrote in a brief.

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...