Voters face only two ballot issues this election, and the one getting the most attention is about voting itself.
Since 2006, Montanans have been able to register to vote on the same day they cast their ballots. That would end if voters approve Legislature Referendum 126 on Nov. 4.
A “yes” vote would repeal same-day voter registration. If that happens, citizens who don’t register by 5 p.m. on the Friday before an election won’t be able to vote.
A “no” vote would keep the system as it is.
Sen. Alan Olson, a Republican from Roundup, says he sponsored the referendum because late registrants are distracting election officials and making for long lines at the polls.
“This is to take the burden off of county elections administrators on Election Day,” Olson says. “They get spread very thin by trying to manage everything out in rural areas.”
That sounds right to Rosebud County Clerk and Recorder Geraldine Custer, who runs elections in a rural county with a limited staff. She says moving the registration deadline to the Friday before would help staff keep its Election Day focus on voting.
“It would give us as workers a little more free time to do what we are intended to do and run the polling stations,” she says.
Defending the law
But critics including Montana’s governor, secretary of state and 22 groups ranging from the American Association of Retired Persons to the Great Falls YWCA, say the measure would make it harder for Montanans to vote.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat, says same-day registration gives people who lead busy and more mobile lives every chance to properly register so they can vote. Some may be military personnel who have been recently transferred or college students who have moved from home but haven’t changed their registration.
Some don’t realize they haven’t registered or that their voting status has changed until Election Day, she adds.
“Most of these folks are Montanans who have moved across the cities or across the state and they have to worry about getting their kids in schools and getting their houses set up and their jobs in order,” she says.
McCulloch estimates that 29,282 Montanans have used same-day registration since the practice began. She concedes that they have caused long lines in some counties, but that’s an administrative problem.
“You don’t fix administrative problems by turning people away from the polls,” she says. “You just don’t do that.”
To ease the congestion, Montana counties that see most of the late registrants have added election workers.
Bret Rutherford oversees voting in Yellowstone County, the state’s most populous. He says lines do form for late registration but that hasn’t delayed voting for those already registered.
“At most of our precincts, people spent more time in the booth than they spent waiting in line,” Rutherford said.
To deal with a heavy turnout in 2012, Yellowstone County moved locations and doubled its stations, he says. Fewer people are expected to turn out for November’s midterm election, he adds, but his election judges will be processing as much late registration as they can in October to prepare for any Election Day rush.
Christopher Muste, a professor of political science at the University of Montana, doubts late registration is an unsolvable problem for election officials in most counties.
“Montana has been doing this for four elections now,” he says. “Most (counties) have probably created very effective strategies for handling same-day registration.”
Olson insists his referendum isn’t about partisan politics, but they do color the debate.
Same-day registration sailed through the 2005 Legislature with overwhelming support from members of both parties – including Olson – but Republicans pushed the repeal referendum onto this year’s ballot.
Gov. Steve Bullock, also Democrat, didn’t like the measure, though he couldn’t veto it because it was a referendum.
“Anytime we’re making it more difficult for Montanans to vote, it’s a sad day in Montana,” he said at the time. “We should be doing everything we can to make sure that every Montanan can vote – not doing everything we can to prevent them from voting.”
During that debate, some critics argued that same-day registration is an open invitation to vote fraud, but state election officials say that hasn’t been the case so far.
Many Democrats suspect the real motivation behind the referendum to suppress voter turnout because lower turnout is thought to favor Republican candidates.
Olson isn’t buying that.
“I don’t see any reason it would stop more Democrats from voting than Republicans,” he said.
McCulloch agrees that both Democrats and Republicans have benefited from same-day registration over the years, but she says some Republicans are still smarting from Democrat Jon Tester’s upset of incumbent Republican Conrad Burns in 2006 U.S. Senate race.
“In the 2006 election, Democrats jumped on that and got people to vote on Election Day and Sen. Jon Tester won by a small margin that election. They see (same-day registration) as the reason,” she says.
Republicans have mixed motives for supporting the referendum, UM’s Muste says, but he adds that they might benefit most from its passage. That’s because most Election Day registration occurs in urban areas, where low-income and student voters tend to vote Democratic, he says.
Whatever the motives, Muste predicts passage of LR-126 would mean ultimately mean fewer votes cast in Montana elections.
“Regardless of motivation, the effect of this, if it passes, will be to reduce voter participation and reduce it selectively,” he says.
-- By ERIN LORANGER and JAMES A. ROLPH
UM School of Journalism