HELENA — Republicans in the Montana House Thursday endorsed a bill to end Election Day voter registration, saying it will take pressure off local election officials that day and still allow people to register and vote up to the previous day.
“Let’s be the ones today who say, `Election officials, we just made your job a little bit easier on Election Day,’” said Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, who sponsored the bill. “And fellow Montanans, we just shortened the lines at your polling place.”
But Democrats, all of whom opposed the measure, said election officials have been running Election Day registration for 14 years in Montana, and that eliminating it and setting the deadline a day earlier is merely an effort to suppress the vote.
Rep. Tyson Running Wolf, D-Browning, said he never voted until registration was allowed on Election Day, and that Native Americans face many barriers to voting.
“Changing the voting process further frustrates the ability of the Native American vote,” he said. “Change one little piece, and we feel like we don’t belong again. … Let’s keep it the same.”
Currently, Montanans can register and vote up until 8 p.m. on Election Day.
The House voted 61-39 for House Bill 176, which would end voter registration at noon on the Monday before Election Day. The measure faces a final vote Friday before advancing to the Senate.
Some Republicans tried to amend the bill on the floor Thursday to set the voter-registration deadline on the Friday before Election Day – which is what the original bill said before it was amended in committee.
That attempt failed on a 44-56 vote – and, as members prepared to vote on the bill itself, Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, promised fellow conservatives he would attempt to amend the bill back to the Friday deadline in the Senate.
He urged them not to kill the bill on the floor, because they didn’t like the Monday deadline.
Six Republicans voted with all 33 House Democrats against the measure.
Supporters of the bill said registration on Election Day has led to long lines of people at county election offices, sometimes way past the 8 p.m. deadline, because they’re allowed to register if they get in line before 8 p.m.
Rep. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Belgrade, said many of the people showing up late in the day to register in Bozeman are students rounded up by groups that support Democrats. He told of lines that snaked outside the county election office and down the street on Election Day in 2018.
“And those nonprofit groups -- and they were not on our side of the aisle -- what they were doing?” he said. “When they were 30 feet from the building, they were working all of those people with literature, pizza, heat lamps, and everything else.”
But Rep. Tom France, D-Missoula, said the long lines of people waiting to vote “is a celebration of democracy.”
“I know we had candidates – I might have been one myself, that on the Sunday before election, and on the Monday before election were campaigning,” he said. “And I hoped that I might have said something that inspired someone who wasn’t eligible to vote to think, I’d better darn well get down to the voting place and cast my vote and I’d better register to do it.”
Greef, the bill’s sponsor, said people can still show up in person at the county election office for a month before the election and register and vote.
“If I thought when I first wanted to bring this bill that it would compromise one person being able to vote, I wouldn’t have brought it,” she said.