HELENA — A bill to end Election Day voter registration in Montana is only a few votes away from passing the Legislature, as the Montana Senate endorsed the measure 32-18 Tuesday.
All Republicans in the chamber voted for House Bill 176, in the face of strong criticism from Democrats, who called it “voter suppression” that would take away the ability to vote for thousands of Montanans.
“(HB176) is a shameful attack on the right to vote, for all Montanans,” said Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula. “We’re not talking about a handful of people who’ve been able to use this vital service.”
The bill faces a final vote in the Senate Wednesday before returning to the House for approval of a minor amendment attached in the Senate. If the measure clears the House, it goes to Gov. Greg Gianforte for his signature into law.
Montanans have been able to register to vote on Election Day since 2006. Anywhere from 1 percent to as many as 2.3 percent of total votes cast in statewide general elections are from Election Day registrants.
In the 2016 general election, about 12,000 Montana voters registered on Election Day.
Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, who carried the bill in the Senate, said there is “no intention” to suppress anyone’s right to vote. Ending registration at noon on the day before the election makes the process “more efficient and reduces the possibility of mistakes,” he said.
Democrats, however, widely panned the bill, noting that Montana voters rejected the idea of ending Election Day registration in a 2014 referendum. They said HB176 is attempting to fix a problem that doesn’t exist.
Local election officials have gotten used to the Election Day registration process, and it’s a good safety valve for people who had problems registering or were unable to do so earlier, Democrats said.
Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, also said it’s another bill meant to suppress the votes of Native Americans, by throwing a wrench into a long-standing process they’ve come to expect.
“In every session, Native American voters have seen their right to vote infringed upon by this body,” she said. “We have added voter ID requirement, restricted ballot collection efforts in Indian communities, reduced mail-in voting and early voting locations,” she said. “And now we’re eliminating same-day registration.”