By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - The candidates for secretary of state differed along party lines Wednesday over whether new voting requirements imposed on Montanans are good or bad for the election process.
Jon Ellingson and Bill Kennedy, the two Democratic contenders, said provisions of the law that go beyond those mandated by the federal government should be repealed because they discourage people from going to the polls.
But two of the three Republican candidates - Brad Johnson and Todd O'Hair - defended the law changes as necessary to protect the voting process from fraud.
In a statement issued Wednesday, Ellingson attacked three law changes the GOP-controlled 2003 Legislature made that he believes should be abolished by lawmakers in the next session.
He would target the requirement for voters to show identification before they can vote, what he called a confusing process for casting provisional ballots when a voter fails to bring proper identification, and new limits on voting by mail.
''The Republican leadership in Helena wrapped Montanans' right to vote in layer after layer of bureaucratic red tape,'' said Ellingson, a state senator from Missoula. ''Politicians are unfairly handcuffing Montana voters with unnecessary ID requirements, provisional ballot rules and difficult absentee ballot procedures.''
The laws are not needed because Montana has no recent incidents of voter fraud, he said, adding that neighboring states did not feel the need to adopt such restrictive requirements.
Kennedy, who is a Yellowstone County commissioner, agreed with Ellingson's objections. The 2003 law makes Montana one of only five states that chose to enact requirements more restrictive than those demanded in the Help America Vote Act that Congress passed, he said.
The mandate to check IDs puts an added burden on those staffing polling places and will require local governments to hire more election judges, Kennedy said.
''It creates confusion and keeps people away from the polls,'' he said of the same provisions criticized by Ellingson. ''I'm opposed to any rule that keeps people away from the polls.''
Johnson, a former business owner from Bozeman, sees no problem with the new voting requirements.
''I don't think it is the least bit unreasonable to expect Montanans and Americans to work with those kinds of measures if they're going to protect the integrity of the electoral process, and I think they do that,'' he said.
O'Hair said the regulations are needed to prevent the kind of concerns over shady voting practices that swirled around the presidential election in Florida four years ago. Candidates for this office should applaud the changes, he said.
''The most important job of the secretary of state is to make sure our election process is fair and honest,'' he said. ''These are all steps taken to ensure the credibility of the election process.''
Bob Werner of Helena, the third GOP candidate, did not return a phone message left at his house.