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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Mail-in Voting Bill Sent To 'Kill Committee'

Voters in Clinton, Montana, cast ballots during the 2016 elections.
Rebekah Welch
UM School of Journalism
Voters in Clinton, Montana.

A bill designed to save county governments half a million dollars or more is facing a time crunch in the state legislature. It would allow them to conduct mail-in only balloting. If it’s going to have any impact on how voters select the state’s next U.S. congressman, it must pass out of what one lawmaker is calling a kill committee. Senate Bill 305 is getting its first hearing in the House at the end of next week. But the bill’s sponsor is unhappy that that’s going to happen in the judiciary committee.

“I think the bill was put into judiciary in order to kill it," says Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.

Fitzpatrick says lawmakers on the judiciary committee are often some of the strongest ideologically in their respective parties and tend to vote on party lines. Since Republicans hold a majority, he says they could kill his bill.

The GOP party chairman has encouraged his party to vote against it, saying it could help Democrats in the upcoming election. Fitzpatrick says, according to legislative rules, the bill should have been placed in a committee that deals more with changes to the state’s election process.

“By putting it in a place it shouldn’t be in and then tabling it in committee, I think the Republican party is going to look real bad," says Fitzpatrick. "So, I think the people on the Judiciary committee see the importance of the bill and move it forward."

But House Speaker Austin Knudsen says he’s unsure if the proposal is constitutional, and that’s why he wants it heard in the judiciary committee first.

“I don’t think this was intentional, but unfortunately, what this bill does is creates two classes of citizens," Knudsen says. "It creates a class of citizens who can vote the way they want to, and a class of citizens that cannot vote the way they want to, by mail, and you know, no longer allowed to go vote at the polling place this election."

The bill, if passed, would allow counties to hold the upcoming election exclusively by mail, and forgo opening physical polling places. Knudsen, a fourth-term Republican from Culbertson, says the desire to save money by not renting out polling space and paying staff is not a good enough reason to change the way some people want to vote.

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick says if the bill gets out of committee and onto the House floor there is likely enough support for it to pass with a majority vote, but if it is killed in committee, he’s not sure if it could win a super-majority of votes needed to revive it.

The billhas already passed out of the Republican controlled Senate 37-13.

Once the bill lands in the House Judiciary Committee, lawmakers have less than two weeks of work to pass the bill, and for the Governor to sign it, if it is going to be in place in time to give counties the all-mail option for  the special U.S. House election this May.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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