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Gov signs bills ending Election Day registration, tightening voter ID restrictions

Gov signs bills ending Election Day registration, tightening voter ID restrictions

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Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte announced Monday he has signed a pair of GOP-sponsored bills increasing restrictions on voter identification required to vote in Montana’s elections and ending same-day voter registration.

Both measures were identified as top priorities by Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, who advocated for them as ways to boost “voter integrity” in the state’s elections. Democrats and Native American groups have argued that both bills would simply make it harder for people to vote — especially Indigenous people living on reservations and college students.

“Montana has a long history of secure, transparent elections, setting a standard for the nation,” Gianforte stated in a press release Monday. “These new laws will help ensure the continued integrity of Montana’s elections for years to come.”

Under Senate Bill 169, sponsored by Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, voters who show up to the polls on Election Day must furnish two forms of identification if they don’t have a "primary" form of photo ID, which the bill defines as a Montana driver’s license or ID card, tribal photo ID, military ID or a concealed carry permit.

Previously, student IDs and membership cards with the voters’ photos were sufficient to cast a ballot, as well as voter registration cards or any other official documents showing their name and address. Now, a voter who only has a student ID must also bring a utility bill, bank statement or some other document containing their current address.

The measure also adds similar requirements for registering to vote, although voters will still able to provide the last four digits of their social security numbers in lieu of photo ID for that process.

The photo ID bill has generated substantial controversy, and was amended on the House floor last month to specifically exclude student IDs from the list of “primary” photo identification. Democrats opposed the change as aimed at disenfranchising college students, while Republicans have argued that voters should bear the responsibility for bringing multiple forms of identification in order to vote. The bill passed both chambers on predominantly party-line votes.

House Bill 176, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, ends same-day voter registration in Montana, a practice that has been in place since 2005. Under the new law, voters must submit their registration by noon on the Monday before the election.

A previous attempt by Republicans to end same-day registration was voted down in a 2014 referendum. Voters rejected the legislative referendum, proposing to set the registration deadline on the Friday before the election, 57.1% to 42.9%.

Native American lawmakers and organizations argued that the change would disproportionately affect Indigenous people in Montana — particularly those on rural reservations, many of whom face long distances to register or vote in person and would have to make the trip twice. A number of other groups, including Disability Rights Montana and liberal organizations like the Montana Public Interest Research Group, also opposed the measure.

Republicans noted, however, that registration and voting can be done through the mail, and that people can register and vote via mail ballot during the 30 days prior to the election.

“It's extremely hard to put the information of all of the voters into the system, get their ballots counted and keep the numbers correct while you're still registering people to vote the same day you're having an election,” Dana Corson, the elections director in the secretary of state’s office, told a House panel during a hearing on HB 176 in January.

In the 2020 general election, held by mail in most of the state because of public health concerns, 3,352 voters registered to vote on Election Day, according to information Corson provided to the House State Administration Committee in January.

That’s a decline from the 2018 midterm elections, when 8,053 voters submitted their registration on Election Day, according to data from the secretary of state’s office. For the 2016 presidential election, that number was 12,055.

The 2014 midterms saw 4,677 same-day voter registrations across the state, and in 2012 there were 8,053.

For election administrators, that’s a lot of potential instances on Election Day that they’ll have to explain to residents why they won’t be able to vote. The Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders did not take a position on HB 176, but Regina Plettenberg, the group’s legislative director and the top election official in Ravalli County, said her counterparts across the state will be especially focused on getting information about the changes out to voters ahead of the next elections.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of voter education,” Plettenberg said Monday. “This is going to be something new, and voters are going to want to be sure before these big elections.”

Even already-registered voters could hit a snag on Election Day, if they moved to a different precinct or county since the last election and neglected to update their voter information. Previously, they would have been able to simply re-register in their new county or precinct, but now their only option will be to return to their old precinct in order to cast their ballot. Montana allows residents to vote one last time in their previous precinct after they move.

HB 176 originally proposed ending voter registration the Friday before the election. A House panel voted to table the bill in January, but after two Republicans changed their minds, the same committee revived the bill and sent it to the House on a narrow, 10-9 vote. Before doing so, they amended it to allow registration until noon on the Monday before Election Day.

The bill passed on mostly party-line votes during the rest of its journey through the Legislature, with Republicans supporting the measure and Democrats opposing it.

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