A record number of people—1,100—crowded the Missoula County Courthouse on Election Day with hopes of registering to vote
An unprecedented event occurred Nov. 4 at the Missoula County Courthouse: 1,100 people waited as long as four hours not just to vote, but to register as well.
While some see that record-setting line as a promising example of democracy in action and the success of Montana’s open voting laws, some state officials are questioning whether same-day registration is too cumbersome and potentially costly.
The chief critic of the law is outgoing Secretary of State Brad Johnson, who was denied a second term on Nov. 4. Johnson’s office acknowledges that the most compelling argument in favor of registration on Election Day is that it bolsters turnout. Nationally, the six states allowing some form of same-day registration in 2004 saw a 14 percent increase over the national average in voter turnout.
But for whatever reason, the trend doesn’t extend to Montana. On Nov. 4, 73 percent of those eligible voted. However, 71 percent of Montana’s voters cast ballots in 2004. That small increase is more likely the work of Barack Obama’s grassroots campaign, not the Election Day registration law, says Bowen Greenwood, a spokesman for Johnson.
“Same-day registration is definitely not the biggest factor driving turnout,” says Greenwood.
The problems are mostly logistical for election officials. Missoula County Clerk Vicki Zeier doesn’t want to give the impression her office was overwhelmed Nov. 4, but she admits that registering 1,100 people, then tallying their ballots in the span of a single day presents challenges—and long lines.
“We made it work,” she says. “It’s not like we weren’t successful. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re not able to handle it, but I’m needed in many different capacities on Election Day.”
It’s difficult to quantify local costs until payrolls are submitted, but this year the county budgeted for 700 people to work the polls on Election Day. They came up just short of that target.
“It’s becoming hard to find enough Election Day workers,” says Dale Bickell, Missoula County’s chief administrative officer.
That shortfall made a difference considering the record Nov. 4 turnout. That day, Zeier says, is busy enough, but 50 percent of her staff was occupied with the new registrants.
That shouldn’t matter, says Matt Singer, CEO of Forward Montana, an organization that seeks to involve young people in politics. Sitting in his sparse basement office a few days after the election, Singer is surrounded only by a few posters and T-shirts on the wall reading, “Vote F*cker!” He notes that Election Day registrants comprised about 2 percent of the county electorate.
“Are you just going to throw out those votes?” he asks.
He elaborates with an anecdote about an intern at Forward Montana who is a current UM student and former Oregon resident. Her absentee ballot never arrived and the student, who didn’t own a car, worked full time. She realized just days before the election that she might not be able to vote. And if it weren’t for Montana’s same-day registration law, she wouldn’t have.
“Who benefits from same-day voter registration?” he asks. “Poor people, young people, people who travel a lot and people who have never voted before.”
Montana currently holds one of the most open voting laws in the country. The state adopted its current statute in 2006 on the heels of the federal government’s Help America Vote Act, an attempt to restore credibility in the voting process after Florida’s 2000 election debacle. Part of that federal law mandates voter databases in each state, something Montana county clerks had used in their argument against same-day registration. The argument was based on the possibility that an ill-intentioned voter could register and vote in more than one county on Election Day. After the state established the database, the clerks lost their sway and two years ago the state legislature adopted the current law.
While Johnson has been an outspoken critic of same-day registration, his successor, Linda McCulloch, supports it. McCulloch notes that safeguards are in place to minimize the chances of voter fraud. For instance, if you register to vote on Election Day, you must vote at the courthouse where the database is available. Hence the monster line at Zeier’s office.
Singer takes the database reasoning a step further. He notes that the United States is the only industrialized democratic nation where it is the responsibility of the citizenry to register despite the availablity of machinery that could ensure automatic registration. Tax files, driver’s licenses and school records have current addresses on file. He wonders why the government couldn’t use these tools.
“The United States government tracks down every 18-year-old male on his birthday to make him register for the draft,” he says. “Why couldn’t they register him to vote as well?”
If she had her druthers, Zeier wouldn’t return to Montana’s pre-Help America Vote Act ways. Prior to the law, a voter had to register 30 days before Election Day. Instead, she’d compromise by asking that potential voters register by noon the day before.
“Then,” she says, “we could concentrate on what was happening at the polls.”
Singer says the whole thing could be avoided if the government just registered for you.
“How many 18-year-old males do you know who got a Mach3 razor on their birthdays?” he says. “If Gillette can keep track of us, I’m sure the government can do it as well.”