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Local option for vote-by-mail draws criticism at hearing

Local option for vote-by-mail draws criticism at hearing

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HELENA — A proposal, backed by Montana’s top election official and local election administrators, to give counties the option of switching to all-mail voting for elections ran into a buzz saw of opposition Friday.

Lining up against House Bill 428 were representatives of groups representing Native Americans, disabled people, the elderly, environmentalists, plus some conservatives, including Tea Party advocate Mark French of Paradise.

The bill by Rep. Doug Kary, R-Billings, would make it a local option for county commissioners in each county to decide whether they want to switch to vote-by-mail elections for their county for all federal and state elections.

Nearly 59 percent of Montana voters last year cast their votes by mail, and the percentage rises every year, Kary told the House State Administration Committee. The bill would save money and reduce the possibility of fraud, he said.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said the percentage of people voting absentee has risen by four times from 15 percent in 2000 to the near 60 percent last year.

“Given counties the option to hold a mail ballot will enhance efficiencies in Montana’s election process and save taxpayers a considerable amount of money,” McCulloch said, adding: “Voting by mail is not only popular, it is cost-effective and secure.”

Two years ago, McCulloch had a proposal, defeated in the House, to make vote-by-mail mandatory for all state and federal elections.

Not so this session.

“To tell you the truth, I couldn’t find a sponsor on the Republican side or the Democratic side,” she said. “This bill is the best option.”

The president of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, Rina Fontana Moore of Cascade County, said, “We are moving toward the mail ballot more and more with every election.”

Most counties will run mail-ballots for their school and municipal elections this year, Moore said.

But opponents, some of whom supported McCulloch’s mandatory vote-by-mail bill in 2011, criticized this bill.

“It would infringe on the right to vote for rural Native Americans,” said Dustin Monroe, executive director for Western Native Voice.

“At Fort Belknap, we don’t have mail boxes,” he said. “We don’t have streets. Mail isn’t free in rural counties. We would have to go to Harlem (to get the mail from a Post Office box).”

At his grandmother’s house, Monroe said seven family members share a single mailbox.

Joel Peden, representing the Independent Living Centers of Montana, said disabled voters would face difficulties if they had to vote by mail. Many of them need to use the Automark machine to cast their votes.

“How much is a vote worth?” he said. “We need to take into account everybody that is eligible to vote and wants to cast a vote and has a civil right to cast a vote in that election.”

Joy Bruck, president of AARP Montana, said the group is “especially concerned for senior voters who may not be able to live on their own.”

“We believe that voting should be as straight forward and simple for the voters as possible,” she said.

French, who lost a bid for Congress in 2010, called voting laws the biggest issue legislators would deliberate.

“There is no question that accuracy and security is decreased with mail-in ballots,” French said.

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

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