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Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, designed House Bill 18 to spur voter turnout and eliminate Election Day headaches. But voter advocacy groups believe Ingraham’s mail-in ballot pilot project may have the opposite effect. 

Ingraham’s HB 18 calls for mail-in balloting in 17 counties, including Missoula. She says the bill provides the voter with added convenience on Election Day—no travel needs, no long voting lines, extra time to study the ballot—and also eases the burden placed on county clerks and recorders.

The State Administration Committee held a public hearing on the bill Jan. 14. As of press time, the committee had not taken any action on it and the bill remains open for debate.

Missoula Mayor Jon Engen supports HB 18, as do numerous Missoula County officials. In a letter of support, Engen wrote that Missoula County Clerk and Recorder Vicki Zeier ran the city’s 2007 election with mail-in balloting and voter turnout increased significantly.

Matt Singer supports almost anything that improves voter turnout. But his organization, Forward Montana, has joined Montana Women Vote, Montana Conservation Voters and Disability Rights Montana, among others, in opposing the bill.

Singer points out that more than 1,000 people showed up at the Missoula County Courthouse Nov. 4 to register. If you think Election Day was chaotic, Singer says, wait until elections officials have to deal with all the people who lost, didn’t receive or otherwise couldn’t complete their mail-in ballots. To that end, he’s suggesting two amendments to Ingraham’s bill that would allow people to register or replace their ballots at locations other than the courthouse.

Alysha Goheen Janotta of Montana Women Vote also wants a provision added to the bill ensuring voters’ opinions are accurately collected if and when the pilot program is used.

“At the end of the hearing somebody said, ‘How the bill stands, we’ll be able to tell how it worked for the clerks, but we won’t know how it works for voters,’” Janotta says.

Despite his reservations, Singer says he and other voter advocacy groups are not against mail-in balloting, but are wary of this particular bill.

“We have a ton of respect for the work those folks do to make mail-in balloting work,” Singer says. “This is not about saying no to mail-in balloting. The point is, we’re anticipating some wrinkles and we want to make this a better proposal. ”
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