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New Montana Ballot Collection Law Raises Concerns Over Voting Access

A Montana primary election ballot in its return envelope
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio

Voting rights advocates are concerned a new law limiting who can help somebody with an absentee ballot could disenfranchise Montanans who already have trouble voting. Supporters say the policy strengthens the integrity of Treasure State elections.

At Touchmark senior living center in Helena, a group of friends meet every morning to discuss the news and occasionally rib each other over politics.

“Our sole goal is to get him to be a Republican. Everybody else is wise already," says retired accountant Carl Tanberg.

Tanberg considers himself a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. He says his father received a letter from his father before he moved West saying, among other things, vote Republican.

Yet Tanberg says the GOP’s ongoing fixation with election fraud, which led to Montana’s new ballot collection law, serves no purpose beyond dividing lawmakers and distracting from substantive policy debates.

“I think they’re just totally going overboard, Trump’s bunch. Just a big mistake to keep pushing this. We’re never going to be a bipartisan type operation again,” Tanberg says.

Tanberg votes in person when he can, but says Touchmark residents should be able to get help from an employee requesting, collecting or delivering their absentee ballot. They may not be able to under the new policy, which prevents someone from collecting another person’s absentee vote if they receive a monetary benefit.

Resident John Whitman, a Democrat and former teacher, votes absentee and thinks the law is a solution in search of a problem.

“I can’t imagine distrusting any employee of Touchmark from putting my ballot in a ballot box. That doesn’t make sense to me,” Whitman says.

Republican state lawmakers prioritized limiting ballot collection this year after a similar 2018 initiative was struck down for disproportionately burdening older, low-income and Indigenous voters. They suspended their legislative rules to pass the new policy in the session’s final days. Ulm Republican Rep. Wendy McKamey says it adds transparency to election procedures.

“If we can’t secure our voting and our elections, then we really have no hope of having a fair election,” McKarney says.

University of Montana elections expert Christina Barsky says the change to ballot collecting, and other new laws ending same-day registration and changing voter ID requirements, are a big shift for Montana voters, especially because there hasn't been a confirmed case of widespread election fraud here.

“If you talk to your election administrators and they’re saying ‘Holy moly we’re going to have to retrain all of our election judges; we’re going to have to turn people away on voting day,’ We’re really facing a potential problem where people that want to vote are going to face barriers.”

The Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based think tank which promotes wider ballot access, has noted a sharp uptick in new restrictive state election laws as unfounded claims of voter fraud permeate the country.

Republican state lawmakers claim Montana’s new absentee ballot rule shouldn’t affect senior living center residents who need help voting. But they do say they want to stop people specifically paid to collect ballots.

Western Native Voice organizer Renee LaPlant drives across the rolling plains outside Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

“Glacier National Park is just right up there. But the rest of it is mostly all of the reservation. It's vast. It's huge,” Laplant says.

So huge, LaPlant says, that many tribal members don't have a way to reliably get into town and vote during election years, nor do they have mail service to send an absentee ballot.

If Western Native Voice staffers can no longer collect their ballots, LaPlant says they’ll fall through the cracks.

“Many people are disabled. People are worried about their meals, their kids getting to school on time,” LaPlant says. “There's so many things that prevent our people from being able to just get out and vote. And that's why we're here to help.”

Laura Roundine is one of those people. The 59 year old Blackfeet woman became homebound to her recliner after undergoing triple bypass heart surgery a month before the election.

The coronavirus pandemic complicated her recovery. As case totals spiked on the reservation, Roundine’s doctors advised isolating at home because she likely wouldn’t survive the virus.

“A lot of our friends were hit by it. And the sad thing is we didn't get to go to their wake. We didn't get to even go say our goodbyes,” Roundine says.

Yet Election Day still loomed. Without mail service, Roundine didn’t know how she’d cast her ballot until a friend connected her with a Western Native Voice collector.

“They were sent out to help us and I was so happy,” Roundine says.

For Roundine, the new law feels like an attack against her voice and a right she’s been proud to exercise since turning 18, one that all states didn’t allow for Native people until 1962.

“Makes us feel sad. Makes us feel like we’re missing out. I almost feel like we’re going back into a century where, next thing they’re going to say is ‘Indians can’t vote,’” Roundine says.

It’s not guaranteed Montana’s new voting laws will remain on the books by next year’s midterm elections.

Western Native Voice and the Montana Democratic Party filed separate challenges to the ballot collection policy’s constitutionality shortly after it was signed into law. Both groups have also filed suit against the policy ending same-day voter registration.

The GOP led Legislature set aside $100,000 for the secretary of state’s office to defend the new laws in court.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.