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Paulette DeHart counts ballots

Paulette DeHart, the Lewis and Clark County clerk and recorder, counts ballots on November 9, 2016.

HELENA — Several people spoke in opposition Tuesday to a bill that would prevent certain people from collecting and turning in ballots for others.

House Bill 212, carried by Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, would impose a fine on people who collect a voter's filled-out or blank ballot. The fine would be $500 per ballot. The bill makes exceptions for post office workers, elected officials, caregivers and family or members of a person's household.

Essmann said he brought the bill in response to events in Livingston and Missoula during the last election where in at least one case a voter called the police after a stranger offered to take their ballot and deliver it to the county elections office.

“There are many issues that have been floating around with respect to the conduct of our election,” Essmann said. He told the House State Administration Committee the bill is not about election fraud but interference with the process of voting and loss of voter confidence in elections. The committee took no action on the bill Tuesday.

There was no evidence last year that collected ballots did not make it to local elections offices or that ballots were tampered with. In scenarios described by voters, a person who came to their door offered to collect their ballot and then offered information promoting candidates the voter did not support. That's where concerns came from.

Those who opposed the bill said it creates unnecessary barriers to voting and that the exceptions for who can drop off a ballot don't capture everyone who helps the elderly, disabled and others.

Jordan Thompson, who represents the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said the bill would make it difficult for many on the Flathead Reservation to cast ballots.

“Cultural differences don't align with many of the provisions in this bill,” he said. “We take care of elders in our community, whether that’s bringing firewood or meat or picking up and delivering a ballot. I don’t see that accounted for in this bill. To pass this bill would be to ignore the votes of many Montana citizens in my community.”

He also said limited resources can make it difficult to buy stamps and not everyone has a vehicle to get their own ballot to the elections office.

Essmann said the bill does not prevent groups that aim to improve voter participation and is narrowly drawn to apply only to handing off ballots to strangers. He told the committee those groups can still offer rides to drop off ballots or hand out stamps.

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Rep. Jessica Karjala, D-Billings, pointed out it's illegal for candidates to give stamps to voters.

Others who spoke represented groups that go door-to-door and offer to collect ballots.

Katie Westhoff, with Montana Public Interest Research Group, said collecting ballots is a great service for the elderly, disabled and others. She said volunteers are taught not to pressure people to collect ballots and are not malicious.

Several questioned how the law would be enforced.

Linda Stoll, who spoke on behalf of the state’s clerks and recorders, said the bill would create a huge demand on election workers by requiring employees to check the signatures on the back of every ballot as it’s dropped off, as well as the identification of who is dropping it off.

“We can compound this by thousands and thousands of ballots,” she said. “Practically speaking this is a very difficult bill to administer.”

Essmann said he’d be open to an amendment to ease those burdens.

Derek Oestreicher, director of elections under new Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, spoke in support of the bill.

Oestricher said he’s heard reports of possible ballot harvesting issues and was “pleased Essmann has taken a proactive approach to this potential issue.”

Rep. Jacob Bachmeier, D-Havre, asked Oestricher if he had any evidence of voter fraud occurring. Oestricher said he didn’t at the time but would get back to the committee.

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