HELENA — The House on Friday killed a bill that would have switched most Montana elections to a vote-by-mail system, as 15 Republicans switched their votes to "no" after voting "yes" on a preliminary vote Thursday that endorsed the idea.
House Bill 130, by Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, failed on a 57-42 vote, likely dooming the issue again this session, just as her pilot project for a vote-by-mail system in certain counties was defeated two years ago.
"I was disappointed," Ingraham said in an interview shortly after the vote. "I really don't know what happened. I was hoping it would have had a full hearing and made it through the Senate."
Afterward, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat who put together the working group that came up with the bill, said it's time to present the issue directly to voters as a ballot initiative. She commended Ingraham for her hard work in moving the bill forward.
"Today's vote proves that fiction too easily trumps fact in the Montana Legislature," McCulloch said. "It's a sad day when elected legislators let politics and scare tactics stand in the way of doing what's right. Politics overpowered the greater good, and Montanans lost."
All 57 votes against the bill were Republicans. Supporting the bill were all 32 House Democrats and 10 Republicans.
One of the Republicans who switched Friday was Rep. John Esp of Big Timber, who said he changed his mind because of concerns over the security of drop boxes where people could insert their ballots if they wished to do that instead of mailing them.
"I think there are a lot of concerns," he said. "Are they or are they not manned? Are they or are they not chained (down)."
Voting is an important right, he said.
"We need to ensure it's a process above hanky-panky," Esp said. "I'm not sure we're there yet."
Esp said he originally thought the House could pass HB130 and send it to the Senate to fix it, but changed his mind overnight. He said he asked Ingraham on Friday morning if she would consider pulling the bill from the floor and sending it back to committee for more work, but she was against the idea because the panel already had worked hard to get it this far.
"I just think one step backward and we may have been able to put the bill in better shape," Esp said.
Similar security concerns were raised Thursday. Ingraham accused legislators bringing them up of "crying wolf."
Vote by mail "is more secure than a lot of your poll sites," she said.
The overnight 15-vote switch by Republicans was an unusually high number in the Montana House.
"I am surprised that so many of them decided to change their mind in 24 hours," said House Minority Leader Jon Sesso, D-Butte.
House Majority Leader Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, called it "a pretty strong reversal."
He said lawmakers received a number of e-mails and phone calls from Montanans about the bill.
"The big issue with constituents is that this would undermine the integrity of the process," said McGillvray, who voted against the bill both days.
Besides Esp, the other 14 Republicans who switched from voting for the bill on Thursday and voting against it Friday are: Reps. Duane Ankney of Colstrip, Tom Berry of Roundup; Christy Clark of Choteau, Brian Hoven of Great Falls, Douglas Kary of Billings, Harry Klock of Harlowton, Cleve Loney of Great Falls, Walter McNutt of Sidney, Scott Reichner of Bigfork, Don Roberts of Billings, Janna Taylor of Dayton, Wendy Warburton of Havre, Ted Washburn of Bozeman, and Jeffrey Wellborn of Dillon.