Mail ballot bill tabled
Montana Democrats strategize to keep mail balloting alive
Last updated 3/29/2017 at 1:34pm
By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN
HELENA — Montana House Democrats failed to win committee approval Wednesday for a measure that would allow counties to conduct the May 25 congressional election by mail.
The legislation is a priority among Democrats who hope that vote-by-mail ballots will increase participation in the special election to fill the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, who resigned his seat to lead the Interior Department.
A majority of the state's 56 counties are pushing lawmakers to consent to mail-only voting, arguing that it could lead to combined savings of $750,000 — as well as save them the logistical challenges of securing polling places and hiring thousands of poll workers to oversee the balloting.
Ravalli County Clerk Regina Plettenberg said her office needs to get guidance from the Legislature by April 10.
With time running out, Democrats were considering a last-ditch effort to pass the bill by using a legislative tactic called "blasting." That would send the proposal to the House floor for a vote but would be politically risky because of the higher number of total votes — and Republican votes — the measure would then need for passage.
The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee tabled the proposal after Democrats forced a vote, riling some members of the highly partisan panel.
"This is one of the most important bills of this session," said Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, a Democrat from Missoula. "The partisan hijinks surrounding this are sad."
While the measure is being sponsored by a Republican — Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls — Democrats have been pushing hard for passage.
Many of Montana’s county clerk and recorders and other county officials — including Republicans — have publicly called on the Legislature to pass the mail ballot bill, saying it would save cash-strapped counties thousands.
Blaine, Hill and Liberty counties all have called for passage of the bill.
"I was committed to saying yes on this, but because of the partisan railroad that just happened, I'm proud to table it," said Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from Billings who objected to the political maneuvering by Democrats in the Judiciary Committee.
The hyper-partisanship came after the chair of the Republican Party, Rep. Jeff Essmann of Billings, told party loyalists that conducting the special election by mail would benefit Democrats and could hurt Republicans.
Republican Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman businessman, is hoping to keep the open congressional seat in GOP hands. His major opponent is Democrat Rob Quist, a well-known musician.
The governor set the election for May 25 — the minimum 85 days he could call one — but could have given counties as much as an additional 15 days to prepare.
In setting the date, Gov. Steve Bullock argued that the state needed its representative in the U.S. House as quickly as possible.
"It's unacceptable that Republicans in the Legislature would rather spend more money to try to get fewer people to vote," Bullock said.
Democrats could make another attempt to pull the measure off the table in committee, but acknowledged that they are short of the Republican votes to do so.
The more likely scenario is to "blast" the measure onto the House floor for a vote — but supporters would need to amass at least 20 Republican votes In a chamber that favors Republicans 59-41.
The measure would need 60 votes to win passage. That means Democrats would need 20 Republican votes because Democratic Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy has previously said she opposes the proposal.
Havre Daily News staff contributed to this report.