By Ron VandenBoom
Several decisions reached by the 57th Montana Legislature pleased Hill County Clerk and Recorder Diane Mellem, but mostly because lawmakers failed to pass several pieces of legislation that gave her serious cause for concern.
Speaking before the North Central Montana Pachyderm Club Friday, Mellem said the first piece of legislation to raised her eyebrows was Senate Bill 111 sponsored by Sen. Alvin Ellis, R-Red Lodge. The bill would have required all elections be held on the same day, whether they are city, country, school, or general elections.
"It's a wonderful philosophy," Mellem said. "But it would be logistically impossible."
Mellem explained that school district boundaries do not coincide with precinct or with representative districts.
"You can't have just one ballot," she said.
Voters living in different districts would go to vote and, depending on where they lived, would each have to receive a different assortment of ballots.
Also complicating the procedure would be reapportionment a procedure that occurs every 10 years based on population.
School districts seldom change, she told the Pachyderms, but city and county districts change regularly.
"I don't know what it would take, how many ballots and how many judges," she said. "And you say to yourself, Florida had a problem.'"
Fortunately the bill did not make it out of committee.
Another bill House Bill 54 by Democrat Rep. Carol Juneau of Browning, would have allowed voter registration to occur at the polling place the day of an election.
"It's a nice concept except how do you police it?" Mellem asked.
Mellem said she saw the bill as an invitation to voter fraud.
While admitting that Montana's current system is not fraud proof and could still be abused by someone determined to vote more than once, she, along with Secretary of State Bob Brown, and other election professionals, saw the bill as opening a big door to fraud that didn't need to be opened.
HB 54 also did not make it out of committee.
Juneau also proposed HB 55 which would have allowed for the reactivation of voters for non-general elections.
This was a bill that although it failed to make it out of committee, Mellem said she could have lived with.
Mellem said the reason she did not support the bill was that the state, county, and city derives percentages of one kind or another from general election voter registration roles. The data is then used to determine funding, districts, and other information.
Mellem said one piece of legislation she supports and feels very strongly about is Sen. Jon Tester's SB 85. The bill would expand the state jury pool to include licensed drivers and people holding state ID cards.
She feels so strongly about the bill, she told the Pachyderms, that two years ago she was ready to file a lawsuit against the state over the issue.
"The Federal Supreme Court has said there can be no condition placed on the right to vote," she said. "Jury duty does that in that it places an additional responsibility on the voter that non-voters don't have."
Mellem said that within the last two years she has had six or eight voters withdraw their right to vote because they did not want to get called for jury duty.
"When a person refuses to vote, refuses to register to vote, or withdraws their right to vote because additional responsibilities are placed on them, then there is something wrong with the system," she said.
Tester's bill has passed the Senate and is currently waiting to be heard in the Montana House. Passage of the bill looks favorable.
Mellem sees little room for improvement in the Montana voting system, but she said she would like to see is a unified voting system whereby all the counties used the same equipment.
"It's something that would have to come from the Secretary of State down," she said. "Because he's the chief election officer of the state."
Mellem said under the current system every county decides for itself what kind of voting devices to use. Hill County uses an optic system to read ballots, but if the equipment ever broke down the nearest similar system is in Helena or Butte.
It would be nice to be able to just go to the next county and barrow theirs if we needed to, she said.
Mellem also said she would love to see a central database in Helena for voter registration that all counties could tap into to register someone or drop someone from voter roles.
The system would virtually eliminate voter duplication and voter fraud, she said.