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Bill to Change Polling Hours Takes Next Step

A voter drops off mail-in ballots at the Yellowstone County Court House June 2, 2020.
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
A voter drops off mail-in ballots at the Yellowstone County Court House June 2, 2020.

HELENA — The 67th Montana Legislature has been marked by a series of bills attempting to change the elections process in Montana.

Some of them, like House Bill 455, didn’t even make it out of committee. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, would have made absentee voting much more difficult. During its only hearing, Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, said the bill was unworkable.

“This is probably the worst bill I’ve seen all session,” Custer said, “and it needs to die.”

However, a cluster of other bills is still moving through the legislative process, including House Bills 176, which would do away with same-day voter registration, 506, which would change how ballots from new voters are processed and 530, which would force the Secretary of State to conduct election security assessments..

There is also Senate Bill 196, which narrowly passed the Senate before landing in the House State Administration Committee Thursday. SB 196 would allow voting precincts with less than 400 in-person voters -- as opposed to 400 registered voters -- to open at noon instead of 7 a.m. It would also add a requirement that precincts notify voters of the changed hours.

Elections officials at the hearing said the goal of the bill is to keep more polling places open by making them easier to staff and manage. Bret Rutherford is the elections administrator for Yellowstone County.

“We have … 80,711 voters on the absentee list,” Rutherford said. “So those folks are most likely not going to show up at the polling place, and we’re just trying to keep from shutting down additional polling places, and being efficient.”

Regina Plettenberg spoke on behalf of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, Election Administrators. She said allowing polling places to change their hours would help them keep polling places staffed with volunteers, who she said wouldn’t want to sit waiting for people who already voted by mail.

The only opponent at the hearing was Patrick Yawakie, who represented the Blackfeet Tribe. He said allowing polling places more leeway in their hours could keep people in those precincts from voting, especially people who have to work on Election Day.

“We can’t assume how the voter’s daily life is,” Yawakie said. “We can only make it easier for them to vote.”

James Bradley is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.