A controversial bill that will tighten voter registration rules is heading for Gov. Judy Martz’s desk.
House Bill 80, carried by Rep. Frank Smith (D-Poplar), requires citizens to give county election officials their exact physical address when registering to vote—even if their home is a box under the Higgins Avenue Bridge.
Some Montana election administrators have given voters a rather wide berth in the past when it comes to physical residence, proponents of the bill said at a recent hearing. Sen. Jim Elliot (D-Trout Creek) noted that one county even received “210 Datsun” as an address for someone who lived in their car. Others simply say they live a certain number of miles from the nearest town and perhaps give their township and range. But heightened concerns about voter fraud and precinct accuracy prompted Roosevelt County officials to ask Smith, a member of the Fort Peck Tribes, to codify residency rules this session. Smith, however, says he had no inkling that the issue would splinter tribes across the state, incite party warfare, and prompt an attempt to have him impeached from the Fort Peck Tribal Council, where he also serves.
Opponents of HB 80—including Rep. Carol Juneau (D-Browning) and other tribal leaders—testified that the address requirement would make it tougher for minorities, the homeless and other low-income citizens to get to the ballot box. Others implied the bill could violate the federal 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Fort Peck Voting Project organizer Gerald Failing added that existing law says county clerks can designate a district for a newly registered voter. They can do so by using 911 and sheriff’s department information, data from public assistance programs and from driver’s license applications, among other sources, he said.
“What they’re looking for in this bill, I think, is to lessen their workload,” Failing said. But proponents, including Flathead County election official Sue Haverfield, said the current system of trying to locate people who file incomplete registration cards is improper because the responsibility for providing accurate information should lie with the voter.
“We feel like we’re playing detective a lot trying to track these people down,” Haverfield testified, adding that in the Flathead, registration cards submitted by people who don’t provide complete residency details are tossed after a few weeks. Other officials said they keep incomplete cards in a “temporary” file for an indefinite period.
HB 80 was approved by the House and left the Senate last week on a 34-14 vote. Smith says he’s relieved, but the political pain lingers. “I’m still trying to get the arrows out of my back,” he lamented.