HELENA — House Republicans advanced a plan Thursday to end same-day voter registration that critics blame for long lines on Election Day, but supporters argue improves access to the voting booth.
The measure, which cleared an initial 61-39 House vote Thursday along party lines, would end voter registration the Friday before Election Day. Supporters of House Bill 30 argue the deadline provides ample time for voter registration, while freeing up county officials to deal with just traditional voters on Election Day.
"Why in the world can't people register on Friday and give the county clerk and recorders time to take care of business and get ready for the election," said Rep. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip.
Some Republicans complain that Democrats take advantage of same-day registration to increase Democratic turnout at the polls. They also argue that same-day voter registration could lead to voter fraud.
Democrats argued that the GOP is trying to stifle voter turnout by making it more difficult to register. They said it would be better to focus efforts on improving same-day registration in order to combat long lines.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch called the measure a "ruthless bill" that will run people away from the polls. Her office says no voter fraud has come from same-day voter registration.
"Turning people away from the polls is not a solution to shortening the lines on Election Day," said McCulloch, a Democrat. "Supporters need to stop sugar-coating the true intent of this bill, which is to ultimately suppress the vote in Montana."
But another Democrat, Hill County Clerk and Recorder Darla Dahl, said she hopes the bill will pass.
Dahl, speaking for herself rather than the state clerk and recorders association which has not taken a position on the bill, said she and her staff are not opposed to doing the work associated with same-day registration. But, she said, with all of the opportunities to register before the election, it would make the day much easier to deal with if the deadline was pushed back to the previous Monday or even Friday.
“From our standpoint, here in the office, it makes sense to not have same-day registration, ” she said.
Hill County saw 135 late voter registrations on Election Day, including 64 provisional ballots.
Some options for voter registration currently in place include online voter registration, mail-in voter registration, even registration at the local driver’s licence examining office, Dahl said.
The local legislators are split on party lines on the issue, however.
Rep. Clarena Brockie, D-Harlem, credited her election with same-day registration.
She said on Primary Day, she talked to many voters in her district who said they planned to vote for her. But, she said, although many thought they were registered to vote, they were not.
Only because they were allowed to register and vote on the same day, could they cast their ballots for her, she said.
Brockie defeated incumbent Tony Belcourt by three votes.
Reps. Wendy Warburton, R-Chinook, and Kris Hansen, R-Havre, both voted for the bill.
Hansen told the Havre Daily News that she was in Bozeman when the same-day registration first took effect.
“There were people lined up around the courthouse, jammed up in every nook and cranny of the courthouse, and then locked into the building at 8 p. m. until they got them all processed around midnight, ” she said.
Hansen said it ran the election administrators ragged.
“It was a situation ripe for mistakes, and our elections are too important to allow that kind of chaos on Election Day, ” she said. “Elections are not secrets. They don't sneak up on anybody. It is reasonable to have registration end the Friday before the election. ”
Election officials say that less than 2 percent of voters this last election registered on the same day.
The measure faces another vote in the full House — likely today — before going to the Senate.
The local state senators — both Democrats — say they likely will oppose it there.
“I am constantly amazed at the voter suppression efforts that seem to be taking place, ” Sen. Greg Jergeson of Chinook said. “There are lots of reasons that a person may need to register as late as Election Day, such as having moved recently, having finally reached a conclusion about who to vote for through all the haze, clamour, and furor of modern campaigns. I am not inclined to question what motivates a voter to make a choice of (waiting to) exercise the franchise until Election Day. ”
Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy of Rocky Boy made similar comments, and said he will oppose the bill in the Senate.
“It’s going to be a party-line vote, no doubt, ” he added. “I'm a fair guy, and I don't think it’s fair to take away a voter’s opportunity to go to the polls to vote. If a person wants to register on the same day as the election, ‘more power to you man. ’”
A similar proposal cleared the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2011, but it was vetoed by former Gov. Brian Schweitzer.