Committee tables bill allowing mail-in ballot for House election

Democrat Rob Quist and Republican Greg Gianforte are vying for Montana’s sole seat in the U.S. House in the May 25 special election.

By Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA – Republicans tabled a bill Wednesday in the House Judiciary Committee that would have allowed counties across Montana to opt-in for a mail-ballot special election to fill the state’s empty congressional seat.

Senate Bill 305 has been one of the most contentious bills of the session, aside from the budget, because of widely publicized warnings from GOP leadership that a mail election could curtail the chances of a Republican candidate. The bill got national attention when GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, released an email asking his caucus to vote against the bill.

Democrats pushed Wednesday for a vote to advance the bill and say they were trying to hurry the vote in order to allow county clerks to prepare for the May 25 election. The bill would have needed to pass the legislative process by April 10 in order for county commissioners to enact it.

Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, voted to table the bill and said he was committed to vote yes for the bill but took issue with the motion by Democrats on the committee to vote on it early.

“But because of the partisan railroad that just happened, I’m proud to vote to table it because that was wrong,” Usher said.

Rep. Ellie Hill-Smith, D-Missoula, voted against tabling the bill and said bills that deal with elections don’t usually get heard by the Judiciary committee.

“It’s partisan hijinx and it’s what we don’t do in this Capitol. This is not how we do business,” Hill-Smith said.

Hill-Smith referenced past legislative sessions when a controversial bill was discussed on a Saturday in order to give sufficient time for public comment. She said SB 305 would have saved the state $750,000.

“I hope that we hear this bill again on the floor and allow the entire body to show the 56 counties back home how they feel about saving, their constituents, fiscal conservatism, local control,” Hill-Smith said.

Rep. Bob Brown, R-Thompson Falls, objected to the motion made by Rep. Virginia Court, D-Billings, to pass the bill. He said he wanted to hold off for the same reason Hill-Smith referenced.

“We still have some time yet before we really have to act on that bill and to give it the discussion that it deserves,” Brown said.

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