Online voter registration bill wins support before Senate committee

2013-02-06T18:52:00Z 2013-02-07T00:32:10Z Online voter registration bill wins support before Senate committeeBy CHARLES S. JOHNSON Gazette State Bureau The Billings Gazette
February 06, 2013 6:52 pm  • 

HELENA — Montana could make it more convenient, improve accuracy and save money by allowing people to register to vote online, a senator told a committee Wednesday.

“This is simply another mechanism to make sure more people have access,” Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, told the Senate State Administration Committee.

His Senate Bill 206 would let people register to vote online, provided they have a valid Montana driver’s license or a Montana identification card.

People registering online would have to attest the information they are entering is true, agree to use the signature on their Montana driver’s licenses or ID card on file with the state and submit it electronically.

It now costs 83 cents for election officials to process each voter registration transaction, he said. Registering online would slash that cost to 3 cents per transaction.

He compared it to people paying their bills and taxes electronically and conducting their banking online.

“Frankly, the younger generation needs these kinds of tools to participate,” Wanzenried said.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who asked Wanzenried to sponsor the bill, said 15 states already have online voter registration and three more are building their online systems, while Montana and eight more are considering it.

“Allowing Montanans to register to vote online will improve the integrity of Montana elections by providing a more convenient, accurate and cost-effective voter registration,” said McCulloch, the state’s chief election official. “It will increase transparency and get more Montana citizens registered to vote, which is a clear step in the right direction.”

One problem now, she said, is that the paper voter registration applications submitted to election officials are at times illegible or incomplete. That would not be the case with the registration applications, which would have to be typed using a computer before submitting them electronically, the secretary of state said.

“Reports from the states that offer online registration show savings of millions of dollars over the years,” McCulloch said.

States typically recouped in several years the upfront costs of building and installing an online system, she said.

Under current law, a person doesn’t have to appear in person or show a Montana ID to register to vote, McCulloch said. In response to a question, she said 75,132 Montanans registered to vote between 2010 and 2012.

Linda Stoll, representing the county clerks and recorders and election administrators, said they “enthusiastically support this bill.”

County election officials now have “try and decipher some pretty poor handwriting” on the application forms and track down those whose forms were incomplete.

“Hopefully, we won’t be the last state to approve this bill,” she said.

Also supporting the bill were representatives of Montana Conservation Voters, AARP Montana, Montana Public Interest Group, MEA-MFT and the student lobbyists from the Bozeman and Billings campuses of Montana State University.

No one testified against the bill, but Republicans on the GOP-controlled committee appeared wary of the idea.

“How will people’s email addresses be used by your department?” Sen. Dee Brown, R-Columbia Falls, asked McCulloch, a Democrat.

McCulloch said it would be optional for people to list their email addresses on the electronic registration form, just as it is on the paper from. Counties now use it to track down people who didn’t fill out the paper form correctly or whose handwriting can’t be read, she said.

Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, asked McCulloch if tribal ID cards could be used to register online.

She said they can’t be used to register, because they can’t be verified, although they do work as an ID for voting under the law.

Webb asked whether a deceased person’s ID card would still be valid and whether someone could use it to register illegally.

McCulloch said election officials would check the signatures to make sure the deceased person’s card wasn’t used improperly.

Sen. Kendall Van Dyke, D-Billings, asked McCulloch whether any states now allowing online voter registration have experienced any fraud.

She said the online system would be more secure than the current paper voter registration.

The committee didn’t take any immediate action on the bill.

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