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Gazette opinion: Protecting Montana voters from purges

Gazette opinion: Protecting Montana voters from purges

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Ohio received U.S. Supreme Court approval this summer for the nation’s most aggressive law deleting names from state voter rolls.

In New York, 200,000 names were incorrectly deleted from voter lists in April 2016.

In Arkansas, the secretary of state told county clerks to delete thousands of people from 2016 voter rolls because they were felony convicts. Many weren’t.

In Virginia, reliance on a faulty address database resulted in nearly 39,000 voters being taken off registration lists.

Those serious errors were cited by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University in a recent report, “Voter Purges: A Growing Threat to the Right to Vote.” The authors detail how voters have been disenfranchised. Some state leaders, as well as President Donald Trump, have claimed that large numbers of ineligible people have voted.

How well does Montana law protect voters’ rights while ensuring that the registration list is accurate?

Data from the Montana Secretary of State Office shows that Montana had 36,519 fewer registered voters on July 30, 2017, than it did two months earlier. In Yellowstone County alone, 4,361 voters’ names were removed.

Yellowstone County elections administrator Bret Rutherford explained those voters were “canceled,” not “purged.” They are people who didn’t vote in the November general election in 2012 and were listed as having moved by the U.S. postal service, and did not respond to two mailed notices asking them to confirm that they were still eligible voters, and didn’t vote in November 2014 and 2016, nor did they vote in the special U.S. House election in May 2017, nor in any local election since 2012.

The county election office still keeps their voter registration record on file, but they would have to register again to vote. Thanks to Montana’s “late registration” law, eligible voters can register and vote at their county elections office in the weeks before an election and even on Election Day.

Ohio law requires voters to be registered 30 days before elections.

Inmates can't vote

What about the Arkansas error on convicted felons? In Montana, a convicted felon forfeits the right to vote only while incarcerated, Rutherford said. Once released from jail or prison, the individual may again register and vote.

Yellowstone County checks Montana Department of Corrections lists of new inmates from our county. The elections office sends the list to the county attorney’s office for verification. Only then are felons removed.

The Virginia mistake involved a crosscheck database used in nearly other states, but not by Yellowstone County. Our county keeps its voter list updated by contracting with Mailing Technical Services here in Billings to compare the voter list to the National Change of Address file provided by the U.S. Postal Service.

Mail-ballot benefits

All-mail ballot elections, which Yellowstone County uses for all local elections, help keep voter addresses updated, Rutherford said. Ballots that can’t be delivered, can’t be forwarded. They are returned to the elections office, which then sends a forwardable notice to the voter. Some voters update their addresses with every local election.

It’s sometimes said that even the dead can vote. Not likely here. Rutherford checks daily obituaries in The Billings Gazette as well as a quarterly list of decedents from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. Sometimes, family members call to report that a voter has passed away. The elections office checks for an official record before removing any voter’s name due to a death report.

By Montana law, the canceling of voters who haven’t cast a ballot in the past three federal general elections must occur in odd-numbered years. Canceling was delayed last year because of the May special U.S. House election to fill the seat that Ryan Zinke resigned to become U.S. Interior secretary. That’s why Montana canceled voters in June and July of 2017.

One might expect that with thousands of voters canceled last summer and the next presidential election more than two years away, there would be a lot fewer voters registered now. In fact, Yellowstone County last week had 96,210 registered voters — about 250 fewer than before the cancelations last summer.

Many new voters, especially young people, have registered since the presidential election, Rutherford said.

Purge scandals in other states fortify the Montana argument for Election Day registration. If a voter’s name is wrongly removed from the list, he or she can still register and vote.

Montanans must be vigilant to protect our voting rights, and we must hold our elected officials — as well as our elections officials — accountable for improving voter access.


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Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has called for more thorough reviews of rejected ballots to identify cases of voter fraud, sparking an email feud with Missoula County and frustrating other election officials from Republican and Democratic counties who see no evidence of a broken system.

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