HELENA — In the first Montana election where voters could register on Election Day – November 2006 – 4,315 Montanans took advantage of the new privilege, or about 1 percent of the total votes cast.
By the 2016 general election, that amount rose to 12,055 voters, or 2.3 percent of all votes cast.
Voters in some counties – Missoula, Silver Bow, Cascade and several Native American counties, for example --- also use Election Day registration more than those in certain other counties, such as Yellowstone, Flathead and Ravalli, according to an MTN News analysis.
But Republicans in the 2021 Legislature appear ready to take away this option for Montana voters, advancing a measure that does exactly that.
House Bill 176, which has passed the House and was endorsed Tuesday by the Senate, would end voter registration at noon on Monday before the election, eliminating Election Day registration.
MTN News examined statewide voter data and data in selected counties, in presidential election years, to get a sense of how many people have been registering to vote on Election Day, and where they are. The full version of the compiled data can be downloaded here.
From 2008 to 2016, Election Day registrants made up anywhere from 1.5 percent to 2.3 percent of the overall statewide vote, in presidential elections. The highest level was in 2016.
Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, the state’s chief election officer and a supporter of HB176, has not provided data on Election Day voter registration for 2020, despite several requests from MTN News.
However, because 2020 was an unusual all-mail election in most counties, the numbers for Election Day registration may not be a good comparison to earlier elections.
Prior to 2020, Election Day voter registration has been above average in some counties that lean Democratic: Missoula, Silver Bow and several counties with large Native American populations, such as Glacier, Big Horn, Roosevelt and Hill.
Cascade County is also among this group, although it’s been trending more Republican lately.
In Glacier County, home to the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, 5.2 percent of the overall votes in 2016 were Election Day registrants – compared to a statewide figure of 2.3 percent.
Native American lawmakers have been among the most vocal critics of HB176 and the effort to shut down Election Day registration.
“It’s just another voter-suppression bill,” Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, said Tuesday.
In Missoula County, Election Day registrants have shown up at a level consistently above the statewide average – but not by much. For example, 1.9 percent of Missoula voters registered on Election Day in 2012, compared to 1.6 percent statewide.
In some of the larger counties that lean Republican – Yellowstone, Ravalli, Flathead – Election Day voter registration has been mostly below the statewide average. Lewis and Clark County, which is closely split between the parties, also has below-average registration on Election Day.
The differences, however, have been relatively small.
In Yellowstone, the state’s most populous county, 2.25 percent of the voters registered on Election Day in 2016 – just below the statewide average of 2.3 percent. In 2012, it was more pronounced, with only 0.9 percent of Yellowstone County voters registering on Election Day, vs. the statewide average of 1.6 percent.
Rep. Sharon Greef, R-Florence, the sponsor of the bill, told MTN News she does not see the bill as eliminating anyone’s vote. Under HB176, Montanans would still have the ability to register and vote, in person, in the 30 days before the election, she said.
“If (people) care enough to vote, they should care enough to be able to register the Monday before the election,” she said.
But Bradley Seaman, the election administrator for Missoula County, said he sees the option as a “safeguard” to allow people who, for whatever reason, want to vote but were unable to register before Election Day.
“It’s not anyone’s preferred option to be here registering on Election Day,” he said. “But we want to provide that service. …
“This isn’t a partisan issue. This isn’t an issue of laziness (for voters) – it’s just making sure that there is opportunity for voters who are eligible to cast a ballot.”
Seaman also noted that people showing up to register on Election Day aren’t always completely new voters. As many as half, or more of them, are registering at new addresses because they’ve moved to a new precinct or county, he said.
“This is a great safeguard to make sure no one slips through the cracks,” he said.