Recently, The Billings Gazette ran an editorial that criticized us for voting against House Bill 130, a bill which would have required every voter in Montana receive a mail ballot. As local lawmakers from Yellowstone County, we were disheartened to read that The Gazette chose to misrepresent our stance on the importance of fair and accurate elections and believe a response is in order.
Proponents of HB130 testified that implementing an all-mail ballot system in Montana would be a natural progression from our current method of voting, which already incorporates no-excuse absentee ballots. While brought forward with the best of intentions, any bill that mandates Montanans vote a certain way threatens the very core of our democratically held elections — the ability to choose. Oddly enough, this is not the first time that those in favor of broad, sweeping reforms have wanted to sacrifice choice in the name of progress.
In an effort to increase turnout, Secretary of State McCulloch's plan would have eliminated polling places and replaced them with over 650,000 mail ballots. Our state already has one of the highest voter turnout rates in the nation so it seems counterintuitive that McCulloch would want to abandon the method by which a majority of Montanans prefer to cast their ballots. Further, the last month of an election is typically jam-packed with political advertisements, phone calls and door-to-door canvassing. At a chaotic time like this, expecting folks to remember their mail ballots under a growing mound of electioneering materials seems like a problem in search of a solution.
Another issue of concern in HB130 was what would happen to ballots that failed to arrive in the first place. Problems with undeliverable ballots are not uncommon and have already occurred here in Billings. For instance, during a vote-by-mail election last summer, more than 13 percent of ballots were returned as undeliverable. If this were to happen in a statewide election, more than 80,000 Montanans would be left waiting by their mailboxes.
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The bottom line is: Any system designed to improve the quality of our electoral process is commendable, but it should not be pursued haphazardly. Oregon is the only state that currently votes entirely by mail and their system was implemented gradually over the course of 17 years.
We are proud to represent a county that has one of the highest absentee turnout rates in the state. However, while absentee voting continues to gain popularity, there are still those who value the opportunity to come together and exercise their right to vote at the polls.
In the coming weeks, there will be a number of bills put forth that are designed to improve access and participation in elections. As your voice at the state Capitol, we look forward to hearing your thoughts on ways to enhance and preserve the integrity of what has long been one of our most cherished civic duties — the right to vote.
Don Roberts represents House District 56 in Billings. Doug Kary represents House District 48 in Billings Heights.