The 2013 Montana Legislature had been given a variety of excellent ideas for improving elections to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to vote. As lawmakers approach a deadline this week for action on non-revenue bills, some good election proposal need to be moved forward.
-- Making the "annual" absentee list permanent, if the voter so chooses.
-- Allowing elections officials to start preparing ballots for counting three days before Election Day.
-- Authorizing online voter registration.
The plan for online voter registration would allow Montanans who have a valid state driver's license or Montana ID to register online. Presently, Montanans may register to vote when they get or renew a driver's license, but the registration is on paper. Online registration would make the process electronic and secure and ensure that no paper registration forms get lost on their way to the county elections office, which has sometimes happened, according to Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
Driver's license holders also could register online from their own computers. Information submitted electronically would be checked against information from the Division of Motor Vehicles and the signature on file with DMV would be used as the voter verification signature.
Senate Bill 206 proposes that Montana offer online registration, just as 18 other states already do. Arizona, the first state that adopted online registration, reports that it saves money with online registration and that 70 percent of its voters have registered online.
McCulloch said the Secretary of State Office would cover the $157,000 cost of setting up online registration statewide and would cover the annual $11,000 in maintenance costs. SB206, sponsored by Sen. Dave Wanzenreid, D-Missoula, does not require any general fund money. Nevertheless, the House State Administration Committee tabled the bill last week.
We call on the panel to reconsider and send the bill to the House floor so Montana can benefit from this 21st century technology.
Two years ago, Montana county clerks and other county elections administrators asked lawmakers to change the law to allow them three days to get ballots ready for counting. Instead, the Legislature passed a law that allows only one day. Montana's election experts are back with House Bill 296 to ask for the time they need to do the best, most efficient job for their county voters. The House has passed SB296, sponsored by Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls. We call on the Senate to do the same.
In Yellowstone County, where most voters (about 60,000) have chosen to be on the absentee list, present law creates confusion and unnecessary expenses. Present law requires that the list be purged every year, that counties mail cards to everyone who was on the list asking them if they want to stay on the list. About 80 percent respond by mail that they want to keep getting mail ballots. So elections staff has to re-enter each voter on the absentee list, a job that takes months in Montana's most populous county.
HB510, also sponsored by Ingraham, would allow voters to choose to stay on the absentee list so long at they live at their current address. The elections office will find out if a voter moves, because mailed ballots cannot be forwarded. They come back to the elections office.
Present law creates confusion because many people think the absentee list already is permanent, and they ignore the annual notice.
Yellowstone County elections administrator Bret Rutherford joined McCulloch and the Montana Association of Counties last week in asking a legislative committee to make this common-sense change in law. We urge lawmakers to support this simple bill that will save counties and voters time and money.
We call on lawmakers to support these three bills and other measures that make the voting process more accessible and simpler for all Montanans.