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Accusations Of Voter Suppression Fly Ahead Of Montana Special Election

Election sign reading 'polling place' on a door at a Missoula polling place.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio
Accusations of voter suppression are already flying ahead of Montana's anticipated special election to fill Ryan Zinke's seat in Congress.

Accusations of voter suppression are already flying ahead of Montana's anticipated special election. That would be held after Congressman Ryan Zinke vacates his seat, pending Senate confirmation of his appointment to become secretary of the interior.

The cost of this special election falls on county governments, and many say they are too broke to set up polling places after the election last November.

"We're going to have to rob money out of another budget to pay for this election."

That's Duane Mitchell, a Richland County commissioner, speaking in support of a Republican-sponsored bill on Tuesday that would allow counties to scrap most polling places and run the special election as a mail-in-ballot.

"It would save us, we figure, $6,000 - $8,000."

It could also increase voter turnout, according to Montana GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann.

And that, he says, could cost Republicans the election.

Rep. Jeff Essmann (R) - HD54.
Credit Mike Albans
Rep. Jeff Essmann (R) - HD54.

In an email sent to supporters on Tuesday, Essmann urged his party to vote no on the bill. A vote-by-mail election, he wrote, would increase participation among people who are less likely to vote.

State Democrats, he said, fare better with those kinds of voters than Republicans do because they can, "organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door," Essmann said.

On Thursday, Essmann elaborated. He said Montana Democrats have more money than Republicans, and are able to hire people to go door to door and collect ballots:

"Obviously I think that presents a potential danger to the long-term election of Republicans."

He also alleged that those people screened the ballots they collected during the last election. That allegation is unsubstantiated.

Since its release, Essmann's email has prompted accusations of voter suppression.

On Wednesday, Governor Steve Bullock was a guest on The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC.

Bullock said it was shocking to have a Republican chairman:

"Brazenly acknowledge that he wants to spend more taxpayer dollars with the hope of getting fewer voters. I mean that's not only wrong for Montanans, that's wrong for the county and we need to be figuring out ways to encourage people to vote, certainly not take away their voting franchise."

Essmann’s stance also created rifts within his own party. The bill's sponsor, Republican Steve Fitzpatrick, of Great Falls, says high voter turnout is a good thing:

"The more people that vote, the better, and especially in a congressional race. I mean this is a person who represents close to over a million people in the state, and I think it's important that everybody's voice gets heard," Fitzpatrick says.

He also questions the source of Essmann’s data.

"I think what you’ve got is, we've got some consultants in the party and they start to develop these myths about returns and results that don’t square with reality."

Essmann’s gotten flack from fiscal conservatives, too, who balk at county governments having to spend an estimated $500,000 dollars extra if the bill doesn’t pass.

"There’s a real split between the people who are paying the bills, the county commissioners, and your clerk and recorders, they seem to be quite upset with the party chairman for suggesting that we should basically stick the counties with a $500,000 dollar bill when we don’t need to."

That may be the case, but Essmann, the GOP's chairman, says:

"With something as important as voting, I don’t think doing things in the cheapest possible manner should be the only task. I think doing things so that voters have the highest possible confidence in the election system should be the task."

To which the bill’s sponsor, Senator Fitzpatrick, replies:

"If the party had to actually fork over $500,000 dollars, maybe you'd hear a different story."

The mail-in-ballot bill, SB 305, passed out of its first committee Wednesday.

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