Montana Bill Would Hurt Young Voters, Progressives Charge

WASHINGTON -- A ballot referendum in Montana seeking to eliminate Election Day registration would unfairly disenfranchise young voters, according to Team Montana, a progressive voter registration group known for wearing pink bunny ears.

The group points out that more than 28,000 people have taken advantage of same-day registration since Montana instituted the option eight years ago, over half of them under the age of 30. Eliminating Election Day registration, it argues, would make voting more difficult for young people.

"Those bastards are at it again – trying to weaken young people’s right to vote," reads the introduction to Team Montana's crowd-funding campaign. The group, which is affiliated with a coalition known as Montanans for Free and Fair Elections, hopes to raise $20,000 to make phone calls, organize bus trips and knock on doors to raise awareness and defeat the referendum.

Republicans in the Montana state legislature have attempted for several years to eliminate Election Day registration. In 2011, the state house passed a bill that would do so, only to have it vetoed by then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D). This time, fearing a veto by Gov. Steve Bullock (D), Republicans are posing the question to voters instead.

At least one leading supporter of the referendum has argued in the past for tighter restrictions on younger voters, who tend to vote for Democrats. State Rep. Ted Washburn (R), asked in 2013 which groups he would bar from voting, named "the 100,000 students that are here that don’t have Montana driver’s licenses, that don’t have any identification other than theirs at the college, who by the way have to wait one year to become a Montana resident in order to get resident tuition."

Forward Montana CEO Kayje Booker told The Huffington Post Tuesday that she was confident voters would reject the measure. "We're optimistic that people, when faced with the decision to mark a box that says they would take away a voting right, that people will be hesitant to do that," she said.

"If we can get our message out there, if people understand what this does, they'll vote against it," she added. "We can win. Our challenge is having the resources, the capacity, in an election year, with a Senate race, to talk to as many people as possible."

Unlike other states, where voting-rights battles have focused on the potential for voter fraud, legislators in Montana are emphasizing more mundane problems, such as the long lines caused by Election Day registration.

"This change will merely ensure that all properly registered voters are able to cast a timely ballot on Election Day," state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann (R) wrote in an op-ed last week. "Voting is a civic responsibility and we have a duty to ensure an orderly process that grants reasonable access to all voters. The current practice of allowing late registration has led to undue delays, voter confusion and election administration mishaps that disenfranchise voters."

Essman said that those who registered on Election Day were a "small percentage of potential voters who procrastinated until the last possible moment to register to vote" and called the referendum "a moderate solution that makes a minor change in the registration process that is common sense."

The complaint about what Republican state legislators have called a "zoo-ish atmosphere" is complicated by the fact that voters who register on Election Day must do so at county election offices, rather than at polling locations.

Moreover, election officials suggest that there are other ways to address concerns about wait times without eliminating Election Day registration. Missoula County Election Administrator Rebecca Connors cited a number of new initiatives to speed the registration process, including adding more staff, creating a greeting center to direct voter traffic, and adding the option to "pre-register" by entering information online before appearing to vote in person.

"We acknowledge there were lines, we don't want lines," Connors told HuffPost. "We've tripled our staff for November ... Each year we've tried to keep improving the process ... anything that we can do to help diminish lines we want to be able to do."

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, the state's chief elections official and a Democrat, has said that such initiatives, along with increasing absentee voting, will alleviate wait times.

"You don't fix administrative problems by turning people away from the polls," McCulloch told the Associated Press earlier this month. "You just don't."



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