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Gazette opinion: Montana’s in mainstream of voter access

Gazette opinion: Montana’s in mainstream of voter access

Montanans who want to vote before Election Day and haven’t yet, can still cast ballots till noon Monday at their county elections office.

Montana is one of 32 states that allows any registered voter to cast a ballot in person before election day or to vote an absentee ballot — no excuse needed.

All Western states offer early voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, Texas requires voters to provide an approved reason for voting an absentee ballot. Oregon and Washington have all-mail ballots.

Greater accessibility

The purpose of early voting and absentee ballots on demand is to make voting more accessible to all citizens. Voting on a Tuesday is harder for some folks than others, and could be impossible, depending on work and family schedules, transportation dependability, child care arrangements and distance to the polling place. Back in 2000, an Election Day snow storm delayed the opening of some Eastern Montana polls and prevented some voters from casting ballots.

Voter turnout in Montana increased with the introduction of no-excuses absentee ballots. Absentee ballots are so popular in Yellowstone County that most ballots for Tuesday’s election have already been voted.

Montana took another step forward in accessibility by allowing Montana residents to vote anytime in the 30 days before elections by going to their county elections office. NCSL reports that some states start early voting as much as 45 days before elections, some start on the Friday before Election Day. The average is 22 days before the election.

Thousands of Montanans have used the provisions of the early voting law to exercise their right to vote over the past several years. Opponents of early voting have made attempts to repeal or shrink this accessibility, and probably will be back at the Montana Legislature in January.

Last month, members of three Montana Indian tribes sued the state and three counties, arguing that the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires establishment of satellite offices on the reservations for late registration and early voting.

‘Satellite’ voting

All the early voting states allow balloting in elections offices, some also allow early voting in “satellite” offices, according to NCSL, which reports: “Satellite voting locations vary by state, and may include other county and state offices (besides the election official’s office), grocery stores, shopping malls, schools, libraries, and other locations.”

The election process of 2012 will provide important information on what’s working well and what can be better in cities and rural areas.

Are there ways to make mail ballots easier to use, perhaps by providing postage-paid return envelops? How about early voting opportunities on weekends? How about satellite voting offices in schools, stores or at the mall? Or early voting at MetraPark where there’s more parking than at the downtown courthouse?

As the Voting Rights lawsuit winds through federal court, Montana leaders ought to consider how state law can be improved.

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