What Montana’s voting laws mean for the special election, post body slam

Republican Greg Gianforte hopes to be elected to Congress after allegedly assaulting a reporter.

In this April 29, 2017, file photo, three candidates, from left, Republican Greg Gianforte, Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks vying to fill Montana’s only congressional seat await the start of their only televised debate in Great Falls, Mont. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan
In this April 29, 2017, file photo, three candidates, from left, Republican Greg Gianforte, Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks vying to fill Montana’s only congressional seat await the start of their only televised debate in Great Falls, Mont. CREDIT: AP Photo/Bobby Caina Calvan

On the eve of Montana’s special congressional election, officials charged Republican candidate Greg Gianforte with misdemeanor assault after he apparently body slammed a reporter to the ground. The reporter, according to an audio recording of the incident, had asked the Montana businessman to respond to the disastrous CBO report on his party’s health care bill.

The incident threw the already high-profile, closely watched race into a tail spin. Newspapers in Missoula, Billings, and Helena rescinded their endorsements of Gianforte. With new momentum, Democrat Rob Quist continued to campaign Wednesday on his opposition to the Obamacare replacement bill that his opponent wanted so little to comment on that he chose to resort to violence instead.

With recent polls showing the race would be close, would the assault be enough to cost Republicans the election? Would Gianforte end up the halls of Congress, jail, or both? Would another alleged assailant be elected to represent the Republican Party in Washington?

Reports this week have claimed that more than half of the estimated total ballots were cast early, while state elections director Derek Oestreicher told ThinkProgress he puts that number closer to 37 percent. Either way, a significant number of voters have already chosen their candidate, meaning the assault may not have a significant effect on the election outcome.

But the state has another voting law in place which could dramatically impact the results—whether the at-large House seat, most recently held by Trump’s Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, will flip to Democrats.

Same-day registration

Montana is one of 14 states that have same-day registration, allowing potential voters to both register at county election officials’ offices and cast a ballot on Election Day.

Montana was among the first states to pass same-day registration in 2005, when just a half dozen other states had a similar law on the books. Studies have shown this type of law increases voter turnout. But Republicans have fought efforts to expand the measure to more states, using the guise of “voter fraud” or other farcical excuses to mask the truth that it will help Democrats win elections.

Montana has had its own share of GOP opposition to its same-day registration law. In 2014, the state rejected a Republican-led ballot referendum which would have cut off the voter registration deadline, changing it from when the polls closed on Election Day to the Friday before the election.

Polling at the time showed that 70 percent of Montanans believed same day registration to be necessary to protect voter participation and 66 percent believed that it protects Montana’s democracy overall.

Reports show that Montana, with a population of just over one million, has greatly benefited from the measure. Since 2006, when same day registration took effect, and 49,410 Montanans have used same-day registration, according to data collected by the secretary of state.

Data on how many people register to vote during the special election Thursday may not be available for some time. But for both registered voters who planned to cast a ballot on Election Day and non-registered voters who may feel inspired to go register and vote on Thursday, the charges against Gianforte might be enough to swing the race.

Rejection of vote by mail

In April, Montana Republicans rejected a bill which would have made the election entirely vote-by-mail, making it easier for voters in the mostly rural state to cast a ballot. The measure would save Montana up to $750,000.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen (R) put the final nail in the coffin after the state GOP issued an “emergency report” saying that vote-by-mail would help Quist win the election.

The irony now is that had state Republicans supported the measure and switched the election to vote-by-mail, most Montanans would have already cast their ballots by Wednesday night, when the assault occurred.

Assuming that Republicans still want Gianforte to win the seat — which might be more of a headache than a benefit for the party — the strange turn of events in Montana is more proof that making it easier to vote doesn’t just benefit Democrats.