Considering that Montana ranks 48th in the country for population density with only 6.5 people per square mile, it’s no surprise that allowing voters to simply cast ballots through the mail would save the state up to $750,000.
Nonetheless, this week, Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen (R) put the final nail in the coffin of a bill that would have made the state’s upcoming special election all mail-in votes — seemingly to avoid the reality that when barriers to voting are removed, Democrats cast more ballots.
The special election on May 25 will determine who will succeed former Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), whom President Trump tapped to serve as Secretary of the Interior. It was actually a Republican state senator, Steve Fitzpatrick, who introduced a bill that would have made it a mail-only election, calling it a “fiscally responsible thing to do.” The bill, however, turned into a partisan ping-pong match that ended with Knudsen’s kill-shot.
Fitzpatrick’s bill had actually passed the Republican-controlled Senate, but not before Montana Republican Chairman Rep. Jeff Essmann distributed an “emergency report” blatantly admitting his concern that the change would advantage Democrats. “All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections,” he wrote, “due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door.” In other words, Republicans can only win if it’s harder for more people to vote.
Fitzpatrick was able to quell initial concern by pointing out that a majority of Montanans already vote by mail, and the legislation passed the Senate. But then the back-and-forth began.
House Democrats tried to force a vote in late March, because if the measure passed, there needed to be enough time to print and mail all the ballots. A party-line vote in the Judiciary Committee tabled the bill. Rep. Geraldine Custer, a Republican who supported the measure, tried to salvage it from committee with a floor vote, but she fell nine votes short of the 60-vote supermajority necessary to bypass the committee.
Then Gov. Steve Bullock (D) tried to save the bill with his own maneuver, an “amendatory veto,” which essentially added the language back through a separate election bill, putting it back before both chambers for consideration.
The legislature is entering its last week, and Knudsen refuses to schedule a vote. As Speaker, he has the authority to determine what gets considered and what doesn’t. Even though Custer’s strategy seemed to show 51 representatives willing to approve the measure, it would require another 60-vote supermajority to override Knudsen’s decision not to schedule a vote, which seems unlikely. The proposal is effectively dead.
News of the bill’s demise comes as another special election in Georgia heads to a runoff. Democrat Jon Ossoff won 48.1 percent of the vote Tuesday, falling just short of the 50 percent necessary to beat several Republican contenders.
Bullock decried Knudsen for “playing procedural games to prevent this (bill) from reaching the House floor,” accusing him of “spending more taxpayer money to get fewer people to vote.” A spokeswoman for Knudsen simply said that he felt it was “bad policy.”