A House panel killed a proposal Tuesday that would have required the state to pay return postage for mail ballots during statewide general and primary elections.
Rep. Kelly Kortum, a Bozeman Democrat, argued his bill was a commonsense measure to increase voter turnout in Montana at a minimal cost to the state. An amendment to House Bill 287 passed unanimously, clarifying that the change in law applied only to statewide elections, and not local ones.
A fiscal analysis of the bill by the governor’s budget office estimated the cost for those elections would amount to more than $640,000 over the next two years. Kortum’s bill would have tapped the state’s general fund to reimburse counties for the added expense.
“It’s just good policy, and getting voters to return the ballots is, I think, our No. 1 priority and this bill will help do that,” Rep. Denise Hayman, a Democrat from Bozeman, said during the committee’s discussion Tuesday.
Democrats also pointed to the November 2020 elections, in which record-breaking voter turnout coincided with federal funding that covered the costs of mail ballot postage.
Republicans on the House State Administration, however, argued the voters should be expected to take responsibility for ensuring their ballots are counted.
“We continue to say that we want 100% participation, that we need to drive people to the polls, that we need to hold their hands,” Republican Rep. Kenneth Walsh, of Twin Bridges, said. “… At the end of the day, we can’t do everything for everybody just to make sure they vote.”
The bill’s backers had included Beth Brenneman, a representative for Disability Rights Montana. During the bill hearing she argued that people with disabilities, especially those in institutional settings, are frequently unable to participate in in-person voting or access stamps.
The committee’s vote fell along mostly partisan lines, with six Democrats voting to pass the bill out of committee and Rep. Frank Smith, D-Poplar, joining 12 Republicans in voting against it.
On Wednesday, a bill to expand voting access to people with disabilities won an initial endorsement in the House, putting it one final vote away from the governor's desk.
Senate Bill 15 would require election administrators to provide voter interface devices for most local elections, as are required in federal elections. Those devices are designed to communicate voting instructions to people with disabilities. The measure would also strengthen privacy protections for people with disabilities who need extra assistance casting their ballots.