A Republican representative from Kalispell says voters should be required to show a photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Representative Derek Skees introduced his proposal to change Montana’s law during a House Committee meeting today, while opponents argued the bill would make it harder for some people to vote.
Rep. Skees says his bill, HB-357, is an attempt to protect the state’s elections system from voter fraud.
"To make sure the folks who are voting in Montana, are actually the folks eligible to vote in Montana," Skees says.
Last October, Montana’s then Secretary of State issued a statement saying there were no verified incidents of voter fraud in Montana. During today's committee meeting on his bill, Representative Skees told lawmakers that he could not point to any prosecuted cases of voter fraud.
But he said it could happen and does happen, so safeguards like requiring voters to show photo ID are needed.
"Voter fraud is like trash on the highway," says Skees. "You know somebody committed it, but can you say who put that trash there? Once voter fraud occurs, it’s difficult to prove. So if the situation exists where it could, then my constitutional oath to the state of Montana is that I will do everything in my power to ensure the purity of the elected process, and as the process works now, you can do bad things."
No one testified in support of Skees’ bill. Opponents to the bill say it will make it harder for some people to vote, especially inhibiting the voting access of students, senior citizens, people with disabilities, minorities and the poor.
"Requiring photo ID for voting, especially when not needed, for any other purpose, creates an unnecessary and unreasonable burden on otherwise eligible voters," says Kathy Bramer.
Bramer worked as an elections staffer under former Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. She’s also served as an elections judge the past three statewide elections.
"Those experiences have convinced me that HB-357 is designed to address a problem that doesn’t exist," Bramer says. "There is really no evidence of intentional voter fraud in Montana. There is no need to vet voters any more than is already required under Montana election law. If passed, HB-357 would discourage voting by those who don’t have or need a drivers license or photo ID."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the issue of requiring voter identification has been one of the hottest topics in elections policy, starting in the 2000's and picking up pace from 2011 to 2013.
Wendy Underhill, the Director for elections at the NCSL, says after seeing states across the country push stricter voter ID laws, the pace slowed in the last few years but picked up again recently.
"I don’t know for sure why this year we’re seeing this uptick after it being a little bit sleepier in the last couple of years," Underhill says. "But one possibility is that President Trump has brought the election’s system and the potential of voter fraud to the forefront again."
Underhill says there is legislation in about a half dozen states moving forward this year that would require voters to have a photo ID to cast a ballot. Montana does currently require voters to present some kind of ID. That can be a utility bill, bank statement, or some government document showing the voter's name and current address.
The bill proposed by Representative Derek Skees would require voters to present a driver’s license, state or tribal ID card, passport, or a concealed weapons permit at polling places or when applying for an absentee ballot. A similar voter ID bill was vetoed in 2011 and died in committee in 2013.
"It would really lead to voter suppression in our community," says Jordan Thompson with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He tested against the bill.
"People think it might be easy to get an ID, but for some folks, it's incredibly difficult, especially on a reservation that is 1.2 million acres," Thompson says.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, Disability Rights Montana, the American Association of Retired Persons in Montana , several student groups and advocacy groups, also testified against the bill saying, if it passed, it could hurt voting access for some parts of the population.
Representative Derek Skees says he doesn’t think his bill would create any hardship for people on low incomes who want to vote. He also says that just because the government hasn’t reported any voter fraud, doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
A spokesperson for Montana’s newly elected Secretary of State, Republican Corey Stapleton, says the Secretary of State will consider any legislation that will lead to ensuring fair elections.