HELENA — Montana lawmakers heard testimony Thursday on a bill that would eliminate same-day voter registration.
The House State Administration Committee held a hearing on House Bill 176, sponsored by Rep. Sharon Greef, a Republican from Florence.
Currently, Montana residents can still register to vote at county election offices on the morning before Election Day and on Election Day. HB 176 would end the late registration period at 5 p.m. the preceding Friday.
Supporters said same-day registration puts too much burden on county election officials. They argued making this change would reduce the chance of mistakes and ensure people have confidence in the election system.
“It’s extremely hard to put the information of all of the voters into the system, get their ballots counted and keep the numbers correct while you’re still registering people to vote the same day you’re having an election,” said Doug Ellis, Broadwater County’s treasurer-clerk-superintendent of schools and election administrator.
Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen said HB 176 was one of five main “election integrity” measures her office will be supporting during the legislative session. Dana Corson, her elections director, said they receive frequent complaints about the long lines Election Day registration can create at election offices.
Opponents said they don’t believe HB 176 is necessary, arguing same-day registration has worked as intended since Montana authorized it in 2005.
“Same-day registration has functioned well and has allowed for the increasingly high percentage of registered voters who are actually voting in our elections,” said Jon Ellingson, a former state senator who sponsored the bill allowing voters to register on Election Day. “It has not caused fraud; it has not caused errors. We hear often about allegations of fraud or errors, but very rarely do we hear actual cases of that.”
They said removing the option to register on Election Day would disproportionally impact groups like Native Americans, college students, those who live far from their county seat and those with disabilities or receiving long-term care.
“Please don’t make it harder for these people to vote,” said Beth Brenneman, an attorney with Disability Rights Montana. “Late registration has been a godsend for them, and we do all we can to make sure that people can exercise the franchise.”
Opponents also noted that, in 2014, Montana voters rejected a ballot measure that would have made the same change, 57% to 43%.
Leaders said about 60,000 people have registered on Election Day from 2006 to 2018. The Secretary of State’s Office has not yet completed its statistics for 2020.
Greef said she wasn’t intending to limit people’s ability to vote, and that she believed most people would be able to adjust if same-day registration was eliminated.
“We are blessed with the privilege of voting, but we also must accept responsibility for that privilege,” she said. “Elections don’t pop up out of the blue and surprise us. If we are a responsible voter, we study the ballot ahead of time, and we also need to know that we need to register to vote.”
Voters can register by mail up to 30 days before an election. After that, during the “late registration” period, they must appear in person at a county elections office.
The committee took no immediate action on HB 176.