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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

County Election Officials Back Online Voter Registration Bill

The Capitol dome in Helena, MT.
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio
Montana Capitol dome, Helena.

County election officials are backing a proposal to allow online voter registration in Montana ahead of the 2020 election. However Secretary of State Corey Stapleton is standing against the idea.

The Secretary of State’s office is in the midst of using a $3 million federal grant to replace Montana’s more than decade-old voter registration system.

Members of Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders are hoping that means it’s a good time to put in place a policy they’ve long supported — online voter registration.

"We need to upgrade our registration process," says Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg.

She spoke in support of House Bill 557 Tuesday, during its initial hearing in the House State Administration Committee.

Plettenberg says long lines of people waiting to register to vote and cast a ballot on election day are evidence that the system needs to change. 

"Everyone is getting into this, this online, and being able bank online and shop online, and I think voters expect to be able to register online as well," she says.

Online voter registration is not currently part of the Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s plan for a updated voter registration system.

When Stapleton announced the plan to replace the hardware and software that makes up the state’s voter registration system, he said that voters were unlikely to see much change in the system, because upgrades were on the back end of the technology.

During Tuesday's hearing on House Bill 557, Stapleton’s Elections Director Dana Corson told lawmakers that folding online regulation into the system update would be tricky with the current timeline.

"As we start that 2020 season, it is hectic all the way through the end of November," Corson said. "Anything we do at our office we want to do an excellent job on it and make sure that it's fully functional, fully tested."

Corson suggested the Legislature study the idea.

The bill’s sponsor, Missoula Democrat Tom Winter, says this process is already standard across much of the country.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 37 states and the District of Columbia offer online voter registration.

The secretary of state clashed with county elections officials during the first year of his administration over election security and allegations of voter fraud. Since then, Secretary Stapleton and clerks have said their relationship is improving.

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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