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ACLU: Keep Election Day Voter Registration

The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana
The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana

The state ballot measure to end voter registration on election day will be especially bad for Native Americans.

That is according to the lawyer who has argued and won some of Montana’s most significant Native American voting rights lawsuits.

"Any restriction on the ability of people to register to vote ought to be invalidated," says Laughlin McDonald, director emeritus of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project.

Based in Atlanta, McDonald is in Missoula tonight to speak at the University of Montana’s Law School. On Monday he’ll receive the ACLU of Montana’s Jeannette Rankin Civil Liberties Award in Great Falls.

McDonald won Native voting rights cases in Montana in 1986, ‘96 and 2013.

He says ending the state’s practice of allowing people to register to vote on election day will disproportionately impact Native Americans here.

"I think it does. I think the evidence shows that over the past decade, there's been 28,000 voters who've used election day voter registration," McDonald says  I think that probably a disproportionate number of those are American Indians, because they tend to be less stable  in their housing situations and so on." 

The arguments against allowing people to register to vote on election day include that doing so makes voting day more difficult for people who register earlier. State Senator Allen Olsonof Roundup, a Republican, co-sponsored the bill that put the election day registration measure on Montana’s ballot this year. He did not respond to our requests to comment for this story. But other backers of ending election day registration say it means longer lines at polling places, and can cause some voters to leave without voting because it takes too long.

The ACLU’s McDonald says that argument doesn’t hold water.

"No, it doesn’t. I think if that is a problem, that the jurisdiction should have more people to take care of those problems," McDonald says. "The mere fact that you have long lines doesn't mean that you make it more difficult for people to vote. You need to do things to solve the problems of those long lines.

McDonald speaks tonight at 7:00 at the University of Montana's School of Law. It is a free public event.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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