Two years ago, the debate over election-related policy in Helena was largely focused on the voter experience. New laws emerged from that 2021 session altering when Montanans can register to vote, how they’re able to cast their ballots and what forms of voter identification they’re required to present. Even in the face of subsequent litigation, supporters of those laws argued they were justified in the name of making the state’s elections safe and secure.
This session, that argument remains unchanged. But lawmakers concerned about the continued security of Montana elections have turned their policy gaze inward, at the procedures and infrastructure underpinning the voting system itself. Nowhere is that shift more evident than in the work of the 2023 Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Election Security, which spent much of the first half of the session learning about the intricacies of how state and county officials conduct the electoral process from start to finish. The committee produced three bills just ahead of the transmittal deadline, all of which passed the Senate with broad bipartisan support, and will likely introduce a fourth bill in the coming weeks.
For some individual lawmakers pursuing electoral change, the motivation lies in suspicion or distrust born in the wake of President Donald Trump’s 2020 defeat. Others who revere Montana’s current system as a model of integrity have nonetheless taken up the issue because, as Republican Rep. David Bedey of Hamilton put it to fellow legislators in January, “we should never rest on our laurels.”
Here’s a rundown of some of the more significant election-related changes that have advanced so far.
✅ House Bill 172, introduced by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, would enable counties to add a county-level race to their post-election audits. The audits are designed to verify the accuracy of electronic vote tabulating machines by double-checking, via hand count, the results of randomly selected statewide and legislative races. Bedey has argued that adding a local race to the mix would offer another level of verification and help instill more trust in county-level results. HB 172 passed the House in late January but has yet to get a hearing in the Senate.
✅ House Bill 196, which seeks to require that county election workers complete their Election Day ballot counts “without adjournment,” passed the House on a largely party-line vote Feb. 8. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, and supporters have framed the bill as a necessary transparency measure in the elections process. Bill critics including county election officials have speculated that prohibiting their staffs from taking breaks would increase the likelihood of mistakes on election night.
✅ Senate Bill 432, sponsored by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, cleared the Senate on a 49-1 vote just ahead of transmittal. The proposal is rooted in Manzella’s broader push for greater procedural transparency at the state and local levels, and would require the secretary of state to present an annual report to the Legislature’s interim State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Committee documenting the use of federal Help America Vote Act funds across that state.
❌ Senate Bill 435, also introduced by Manzella, would have mandated that all elections in Montana be conducted via hand counts, a significant departure from the long-standing practice in most counties of using electronic vote tabulators. The bill failed to make it out of the Senate State Administration Committee, getting tabled on a unanimous vote Feb. 25.
✅ House Bill 335 is one of several proposals this session aimed at revising how Montana counties maintain their absentee voter lists. Sponsor Bedey’s pitch in HB 335 is to place absentee voters on a county’s inactive voter list if their ballot is returned as undeliverable and they fail to respond to a follow-up notification. That status change would occur only after the election. The bill passed the House Feb. 28 on a 91-8 vote.
✅ House Bill 173, another Bedey-sponsored bill, would require voting machine manufacturers to verify that any machines used in the state do not contain modems, and certify that verification through a third-party tester. HB 173 passed third reading in the House Feb. 1 with mixed bipartisan support.
✅ House Bill 774 generated considerable debate among lawmakers when it hit the House floor March 2. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mike Hopkins, R-Missoula, would combine all local, state, federal and special district elections on the same ballot in even-numbered years. Hopkins argued the HB 774 would help increase voter participation in typically low-turnout elections such as school boards, fire and irrigation districts and local bond issues. Opponents on both sides of the aisle countered that the bill would create significant disruption for election officials and voters alike, and suggested that the Legislature instead launch a study of the prospect during the next interim. HB 774 passed its initial House vote 62-38 and was sent to the House Appropriations Committee for further debate.
PROHIBITIONS AND PENALTIES
❌ House Bill 565, sponsored by Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, sought to implement a new penalty for anyone who knowingly misleads a voter about the date, time or place of an election with the intent of preventing that voter from casting a ballot. HB 565’s proposed fine for the new offense — called “dissemination of false election information” — was $1,000 or up to a year in jail. The bill was tabled unanimously in the House Judiciary Committee Feb. 23.
✅ House Bill 712, sponsored by Rep. Zack Wirth, R-Wolf Creek, adds a single line to Montana’s citizenship requirements for voters explicitly stating that “illegal aliens are prohibited from voting.” It passed the House on a 70-29 vote Feb. 28. A more comprehensive proposal from Bedey — House Bill 402 — inserting new citizenship verification requirements for voters into state law also cleared the House last week, though the margin there was much closer: 49 yeas to 48 nays.
✅ House Bill 598, another Hellegaard proposal, would implement an outright ban in Montana on any voting method that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference — a practice known as ranked-choice voting. Conservative supporters on the House floor claimed HB 598 is a necessary safeguard against a left-wing takeover of the state, but a dozen Republicans sided with the chamber’s full Democratic caucus. HB 598 passed the House last week 56-43.
✅ House Bill 716, sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, passed the House March 2 with support from the full Republican caucus and one Democrat. The bill adds perjury — a felony — to the list of charges that can be leveled against a person who submits false information on a voter registration form or ballot, signs a petition with a name other than their own, or otherwise engages in what Montana defines as “deceptive election practices.”
✅ Senate Bill 385 cleared the Senate last week on a unanimous vote. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Zolnikov, R-Billings, expands the requirements local election officials must meet in selecting election judges, and outlines a new process for removing those judges if they violate election rules or engage in problematic behavior such as tampering with ballots. SB 385 also stipulates that any complaints involving a county clerk and recorder or election administration fall under the jurisdiction of the county attorney.
CANDIDATES AND PRECINCTS
✅ Senate Bill 86, sponsored by Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, passed the Senate with strong bipartisan approval in early February, but has yet to get a hearing in the House. The bill seeks to place a 2,000-voter cap on precinct sizes in the state, a proposal Morigeau argued would help to equalize precinct populations in Montana cities experiencing significant growth.
❌ Senate Bill 156 lingered for nearly a month in the Senate State Administration Committee before members voted unanimously to table it Feb. 27. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, would have required that all counties elect their clerk and recorders in nonpartisan races, a practice only some counties currently follow.
✅ House Bill 360, sponsored by Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, would enable Montana counties to elect county commissioners by district. Supporters argued on the House floor last week that the bill would provide for fairer representation in counties with a mix of urban and rural areas. Opponents countered that HB 360 raised potential logistical challenges related to district boundaries and cut against the at-large tradition of county governments in the state. The bill passed the House March 1 on a 64-34 vote.
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