House Committee approves disputed referendums

The House State Administration Committee

The House State Administration Committee

The House State Administration Committee has voted to move forward two referendum bills which caused a Democratic uproar recently in the Senate.

The two measures each passed the committee on party-line 12 to 7 votes. The first, SB405, close same-day voter registration in the state. The other, SB408, would put in place a top-two primary system. Being referendum bills, if they pass both legislative chambers with a simple majority, they would each be put before a general public vote in 2014. As such, the bills would bypass a potential veto of Democratic Governor Steve Bullock.

Using referendums has become a strategy of Republicans in the legislature the past two sessions. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office says there are still 10 potential referendum bills alive in 2013 Session. Enough so, Senate Democrats attempted to employ a rarely-used parliamentary procedure to kill the bills. When Republican leadership ignored Democratic motions to use that procedure, the minority party rose to their feet, shouted and pounded their desks. The GOP-controlled Senate Rules Committee voted to say Republicans did not do anything wrong in the events, and that the votes taken during the tumult did in fact count.

Much of the testimony and debate in the State Administration Committee reflected earlier debates on standard, non-referendum bills which were very similar. On the idea of removing same-day voter registration, opponents argue it disenfranchises citizens who show up on Election Day unregistered. The bill would move the registration deadline to the Friday before Election Day and supporters call that a reasonable shift in order to shrink wait-times for voters and help over-burden election workers.

Many believe same-day voter registration tends to benefit Democratic candidates and issues as some left-leaning constituencies like college students, the poor, and Native Americans are more likely to not be properly registered when they show up to vote.

The bill to create a top-two primary would change the state’s primary election system to one type of ballot, rather than citizens receiving a Republican and Democratic primary and having to choose one to vote. The top-two candidates in each race would move forward to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Those in favor say it would free independent-minded Montanans from having to vote for one party in the primaries. Opponents say third-party candidates would get shut out of general elections.

Libertarian candidates have played a ‘spoiler’ role in several recent statewide elections, commonly seen to draw votes away from Republican candidates.

The two referendum bills now move to the House floor for debate.

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House committee passes contentious bill banning same day voter registration

Representative

Representative Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman)

A bill sponsored by Montana Representative Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman) to nix the state’s same-day voter registration system passed the House State Administration Committee on party lines Friday, with Republicans voting for it and Democrats against.

Another bill sponsored by Washburn which would require a Montana-issued ID card to vote, was tabled in the committee after three Republicans voted with Democrats.

The same-day voter registration closure bill moves the final day to register to the Friday before Election Day. The bill drew long lines of opposition during its public hearing last week, compared with two people speaking in favor of it.

“This is obviously an issue that pretty much no matter how you vote you’re gonna make somebody upset,” Representative Liz Bangerter (R-Helena) said Friday. She said the emails she has received about the bill have been pretty much split down the middle. She says this bill is not about addressing voter fraud (the state has no documented cases of voter fraud), but rather easing up a hectic workload for election administrators on election day.

The last few Presidential elections in Montana have seen voters standing in line for hours at polling places. Thousands of those people statewide need to register at the same time. Supporters of dropping same-day registration say taking that service out of the process would shorten those lines and free up election officials to work on getting people into the voting booth more quickly.

“The beauty of Friday is that a Clerk and Recorder can use their whole staff that day, till midnight if it takes to get people registered.

“I believe strongly that voting is a right and with all rights come responsibilities,” Bangerter said. “Sometimes those responsibilities include making sure that you are registered to vote in a timely manner.”

Democrats said voters just make mistakes sometimes, showing up on election day only to realize they hadn’t registered at their new address after a recent move.

“The long lines and the shortage of ballots are a resource problem, not a voter problem,” said Representative Franke Wilmer (D-Bozeman). “I think it’s a good thing for our democracy to see so many people turn out in higher numbers than ever before.”

Wilmer said if resources are a problem, then election offices need more employees.

The bill, HB30, now moves to the floor of the Montana House of Representatives.

Another voting bill draws heavy opposition, Sponsor says it’s misunderstood

Voter ID Bill Sponsor Rep. Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman) sits next to bill opponent Secretary of State Linda McCulloch (D-MT) in the bill's hearing Wednesday

Voter ID Bill Sponsor Rep. Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman) sits next to bill opponent Secretary of State Linda McCulloch (D-MT) during a Wednesday hearing of the House State Administration Committee

A bill requiring a Montana issued identification card in order to register to vote prompted a long line of opponents during its Wednesday hearing. One person did line up to speak in favor of the bill but was dismissed for not approaching during the time designated for bill proponents.

Representative Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman) is sponsoring several bills this session to modify the state’s voter registration process, including one which would eliminate Montana’s same-day voter registration system. He says he believes the current system is open to potential fraud, but that his voter ID bill (HB 108) does not confront those issues.

Washburn’s bill requires citizens present an ID issued by the Montana Motor Vehicle Division or a Montana Tribal ID card when registering to vote. If a Montanan doesn’t have a drivers license they can register for a standard Montana ID from MVD, which they can then use to register to vote. Washburn’s bill offers that ID card for free.

“Just because a person is poor or they don’t have a lot of money, they could still vote,” Washburn said, saying the bill could secure free identification for groups like senior citizens and young people.

Rep. Bryce Bennett (D-Missoula) speaking at a press conference against Rep. Washburn's voter registration bills

Rep. Bryce Bennett (D-Missoula) speaking at a press conference against Rep. Washburn’s voter registration bills

“It’s political spin to say this is about making voting easier for people,” said Representative Bryce Bennett (D-Missoula) at a Wednesday press conference against the bill. Bennett says adding a new requirement, even if it is free, doesn’t make the system any easier. Bennett says Washburn is trying to limit the voting rights of certain groups. Great Falls cattle rancher Richard Liebert said of the current system, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Some of the opponents of the bill represented the groups Washburn said would be helped by it, such as the AARP. Native American groups and disabled persons also spoke against it as trying to find a solution in search of a problem. They pointed out Montana has no documented incidence of fraud.

Rep. Washburn said some of these groups, although making sure not to point out any specifically, have their own agenda who may not actually have a problem with the legislation, but rather because “they oppose anything.” He said they don’t understand the intent of HB 108.

Washburn said he has one more voting process bill the House State Administration Committee will be hearing soon, does address the fraud potential he sees in Montana’s election process.

The No.1 reason Rep. Washburn says MT should end same-day voter registration

Voter registration lines at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse, Election Day 2012

Voter registration lines at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse, Election Day 2012

Long Election Day lines.

Bozeman Republican Representative Ted Washburn is proposing a bill to the Montana Legislature (HB30) which would eliminate Montana’s same-day voter registration system. The House State Administration Committee held a hearing on the bill Monday.

Washburn says the top reason he wants to this bill is to protect the integrity of the elections, a process he says is open to potential fraud.

Rep. Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman)

Rep. Ted Washburn (R-Bozeman)

And, for Washburn, this bill would help reduce that risk primarily through reducing long lines on Election Day. As we reported on Election Day 2012, many County Election offices around the state had people waiting in line for hours to vote.

“You’ve got people lining up till midnight trying to register to vote,” Washburn said about last November 6th at his election office in Gallatin County. Rep. Washburn believes the number of people registering on the final day complicates  to an already hectic process for election officials.

His bill proposes moving the last day for voter registration to the last Friday before the election.

As Lee Newspapers Reporter Charles S. Johnson reports, about 20 people spoke against Rep. Washburn’s bill, while only two spoke in favor of it. Groups such as the AARP, the ACLU as well as some Native American groups said the bill would ‘disenfranchise’ Montanans.

Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch told the committee over 28 thousand Montanans have used same-day voter registration since it was implemented in the 2006 General Election. She says there have been no identified cases of voter fraud in Montana from same day registration and this is “a solution to a problem that does not exist.” .