As Montana voters head to the polls to elect a new senator and a new congressman this November, they will also decide whether it should be more difficult to cast a ballot in Big Sky Country.
On Election Day, Montana will host one of the country’s key voting rights battles as voters decide whether to preserve or eliminate the state’s Election Day Registration (EDR) law, which permits citizens to register (or update their registration if they’ve recently moved) when they show up at the polls.
Montana adopted EDR in 2005 when the state legislature passed Senate Bill 302 by overwhelmingly bipartisan margins (89–8 in the House and 42–8 in the Senate). Since then, 28,239 Montanans have personally benefitted from EDR, according to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
Montana has seen its voter turnout rate surge during the past decade. In the two presidential elections before EDR was enacted, the state averaged a 65.7 percent turnout rate. However, in the two presidential elections since, the rate jumped to 73.4 percent. Indeed, academic studies have shown that EDR — by removing barriers to voting and making it more accessible — directly boosts turnout rates by 7 to 14 percentage points on average.
Currently, a group of twelve states plus the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing for EDR, including the recent additions of California, Colorado, Connecticut, and Illinois.
However, since the voter suppression push began in earnest three years ago, Montana Republicans have repeatedly tried to eliminate EDR. In 2011, right after taking control of the state legislature, Republicans passed a bill to scrap EDR, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D). This year, they came up with a new plan.
Rather than pushing the same legislation, only to see it vetoed by current Gov. Steve Bullock (D), Republicans in the legislature instead passed a bill that would put the matter to voters, cutting Bullock and his veto pen out of the process.
If Montana voters decide to approve LR-126, they will no longer be permitted to register on Election Day, instead setting a registration deadline of 5:00pm on the Friday before Election Day.
One of the measure’s main sponsors, Rep. Ted Washburn (R), explained why he wanted to roll back EDR. “We are looking at increasing the integrity of the vote because we are trying to get all the people registered on the last Friday before election. We are trying to concentrate on the large crowds that come out. Some times it takes four to six hours to try and get them registered and trying to get them into vote.” So a major thrust of his complaint appears to be that, because EDR is highly popular with voters, it ought to be scrapped.
The Billings Gazette, the state’s largest newspaper, took issue with the notion that repealing EDR was intended to protect the “integrity” of Montana elections, calling the claim “deceptive.” They urged citizens to reject the initiative. Damon Daniels, an advocacy assistant at Demos, a New York-based think tank, also warned that eliminating EDR would increase election costs in Montana, particularly because the state would need “to educate voters in order to remain in compliance with existing federal mandates.”
Opponents of LR-126 can take heart from a similar episode that occurred recently in Maine. In 2011, the Republican-held legislature repealed the state’s 40-year-old EDR law, but a citizen backlash forced the measure to a statewide vote. The law was reinstated after voters supported EDR by a 2-to-1 margin.
Whether Montana voters take the same path will come down to the question of whether Montanans think more voting rights are better than fewer. If recent polling, which found that nearly three of every four Montanans believes EDR is working well in the state, is any indication, rolling back voting rights could meet the same fate in Montana that it did in Maine.