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House Republicans Revive Bill To End Same Day Voter Registration

Someone drops a ballot into a box to vote in this stock photo.
Jackie Yamanaka
Yellowstone Public Radio

A bill that would eliminate same day voter registration in Montana was revived Tuesday on a largely party line vote. The bill now moves to the House floor.

After tabling House Bill 176 Jan. 29 a group of Republicans voted to revive the bill after adding an amendment to close voter registration on Monday at noon before an election. The previous bill draft would have ended registration the Friday before an election so the amendment effectively adds 8 more hours for voters to register.

Republican Rep. Sharon Greef from Florence is the primary sponsor of House Bill 176.

"I think that this is a good compromise. I think it still presents the heart of the bill, that it alleviates the burden on the clerks and recorders the day of the election. And that was really the original intent," Greef said.

Regina Plettenberg of Ravalli is the Legislative Chair of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders. In an interview, she says the association did not request this bill and is not taking a stance on it.

Plettenberg says some clerks support the bill because their duties have expanded to watching polls, solving problems with election workers, counting ballots and registering late voters, which can be a lot to juggle.

On the other hand, she says many clerks don’t support the bill because election offices have staff for same day voter registration since it’s part of their job, and if the bill passes,

"We have to be the ones on the front line that tell those people you can't vote," Plettenberg said.

But Plettenberg says she feels neutral about the bill for another reason as well.

"The voters voted on this in 2014. They voted to keep late registration on election day. Being an election administrator, I just can't go against that," she said.

Similar legislation died in committee in 2019.

Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen has called House Bill 176 one of her office’s top five priorities, while advocacy groups such as Montana Native Vote, Montana Public Interest Research Group and the ACLU of Montana oppose the bill, saying it will prevent certain groups such as Native Americans, college students, the disabled and those working 8 to 5 shifts from voting.

Democratic Rep. Marvin Weatherwax from Browning said the bill will disenfranchise voters.

"I will call this what it is: voter suppression. I’m kind of upset that we would even think of doing something like this to our people, to any of our people. I'm not speaking for any specific group," Weatherwax said.

The decision to revive House Bill 176 was won in a 10 to nine vote. All Democrats along with Republican Rep. Brian Putnam from Kalispell and Rep. Geraldine Custer from Forsyth voted against it. When discussing the bill, representatives on both sides gave similar reasons as Plettenberg for supporting or fighting the bill.

In a press conference Tuesday Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, declined to say he supported the bill’s revival but says he looks forward to reviewing it when it comes across his desk.

The bill is headed to the House floor for debate next.

Kaitlyn Nicholas is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America Indigenous affairs reporter.

Kaitlyn Nicholas covers tribal news in Montana.