The Phantom Poll Booth 

Montana law is keeping thousands of phantom voters on the rolls

Counting voters can cut both ways. If you want signatures to place a referendum on the ballot, the fewer signatures needed, the better. But if you are opposing a bond issue or mill levy that will increase your taxes, you hope for the highest possible number of voters required by law.

But who decides which voters to count? And why are counties now carrying hundreds—perhaps thousands—of phantom voters on their rolls?

Voters Opportunity to Educate (VOTE), the authors of a petition designed to overturn the recently amended Ravalli County subdivision regulations, must find an additional townful of people—1,350 or more—in order to successfully place their petition on a ballot.

Montana law requires that 15 percent of a county’s registered voters must sign such a petition before it achieves ballot status, but the question is: How many registered voters does a county have?

In Ravalli County’s case, the active voter list is about 21,000. The inactive list contains another 9,000 names. Together the two lists total 30,000 voters, in a county with an estimated population of about 35,000. If all those people still live in Ravalli County, it means that only 15 percent of the population is under 18 years of age, a highly unlikely statistical probability.

In Missoula County, the figures are even more significant. According to Kim Cox, county election supervisor, the active voter list for the June primary contained 50,967 names. The inactive list contained more than half that number—30,519—for a total of 81,486 registered voters.

In theory, it’s possible for a county in Montana to have more registered voters than it has actual citizens. And that’s largely due to legislation passed in 1997 that changed the way state, county and city election rolls could be purged. Formerly, if a person did not vote in the federal presidential election, that person’s name was removed from the voter registration list and he or she would have to reregister to be eligible to vote again. Under the new laws, it may take as long as six years to remove voters who no longer vote from the registration. To simplify matters, county clerk and recorders place voters on an active list, which indicates the person voted in the last election, and an inactive list of those who did not vote.

“There’s no requirement for people to notify us that they are moving, although some do,” said Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Betty Lund. “People move. They die out-of-state and we don’t know unless a family member returns to tell us. We are required to wait at least two election cycles and send several inquiry cards before we can take a person off the voter registration list now. It takes a tremendous amount of time and paper work.”

Which leads to the VOTE petition. When VOTE presented its petition last month, Ravalli County Attorney George Corn ruled that the group must gather 15 percent of the total number of signatures, not just those on the active list.

Corn says he based his decision on the language in state statutes. “It doesn’t distinguish between an active and inactive list,” Corn said. “It says matters brought by petition must be submitted to the electors. The legislature may have meant to clarify that but they didn’t do it. Based on the way I read the law, I’m taking a conservative view.”

Missoula Deputy County Attorney Mike Schestedt takes a different approach, calling the laws “an ambiguous area.”

He bases his decision to use only the active voter list for petition and levy purposes on the reasoning that “electors” are those who can step up to the polls and vote without having to go though any process or paperwork. Inactive voters must fill out a form with current address to become reinstated as an active voter.

“The only people who can vote on a local issue are those on the active list,” Schestedt said. “If you are going to make a mistake here, I choose to make it in favor of franchising the voters of the area.”

Schestedt said he is concerned about the possibility of the combined lists rising to numbers that would make it impossible for school bonds or permissive levies to pass. Missoula, for example, has a highly mobile population. College students are politically active and most register to vote. They move on after graduation but their names remain behind on the voter rolls.

Schestedt is also concerned about the possibility of voter fraud. And he is not alone. A recent report, published by political science professor Craig Wilson from Montana State University–Billings, says the state has too many voters based on its population.

Wilson’s study states that there were 150,000 too many people registered to vote in the June primary. He based his findings on a comparison between 1998 U.S. Census estimates and the total number of registered voters statewide. He compared the population figures with statistics showing how many people were over and under the age of 18 and came up with the huge amount of surplus voters.

Wilson started the study to discover why Montana’s voter turnout pecentages were declining—an unusual trend in a state that traditionally has high numbers at the polls for every election. In June for example, 31 percent of Montanans voted (208,652 of 671,328), but the total figure includes both the active and inactive voter lists. The voter turnout declined from a 41 percent turnout in 1996 (before the law changed) to a 27 percent turnout in 1998 (after the law changed.)

Across the state, in small counties and in the largest ones, Wilson discovered that voter registration ran around the 90 percent mark for the county’s population—an unrealistic figure given the age spread of Montanans. According to Census Bureau estimates, there should be 656,050 Montanans eligible to vote, but the state total of registered voters was 671,328 in June—a difference of 15,114.

In 27 of the state’s 56 counties, there were more registered voters than there were people of voting age, when Wilson compared the two sets of figures. Missoula County had the highest diversion. It listed 13,357 more registered voters than people over the age of 18. Wilson agrees with Schestedt’s conclusion that the college population is a factor in the discrepancy.

Wilson puts the cause of the skewed numbers on the new laws that keep people on the voter registration lists now and on the increased efforts to register new voters through programs such as “motor voter” where people can register when they apply for a driver’s license.

Lund and Cox say the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders are preparing legislation for the 2001 legislative session to try to address the problem. As it stands now, clerks and recorders across the state spend countless hours trying to locate inactive voters and documents in an effort to locate them before they are officially removed from the lists.

“We spend hours and hours on it,” Cox says. “It’s a huge job. And there is a significant cost associated with maintaining the inactive list. The law says we have to have enough ballots for everyone to vote so the printing costs keep going up for each election.”

Back in Ravalli County, VOTE spokesman Terry Nelson held a meeting last week to discuss strategy for the petition drive. The group would prefer to collect 3,150 signatures but they are prepared to collect 4,500—the higher amount that is 15 percent of both lists. The petition drive will begin next week to put the Nov. 7 general election day within the required 90-day time limit.

“We’ll get the number we need,” Nelson said. “We’re determined to see this through.”

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