LR-129: Montana voters to decide if ballot collection should remain legal

If LR-129 is approved by voters, election officials would have to write down people’s names who drop off ballots, creating a list of authorized people who had done nothing wrong and potentially slowing down the process. (Missoula Current file photo)

Editor’s note: Today, Missoula Current begins an 11-part series of stories previewing statewide issues and candidates on the November midterm election ballot. The stories are the work of Community News Service in the University of Montana’s School of Journalism.

(Community News Service) Supporters of LR-129 claim their proposal will ensure that mail-in ballots are secure and that the state’s elections are free of potential fraud, but opponents argue the entire effort may cause unnecessary gridlock at the polls and distract from any actual security issue.

The initiative would prohibit the collection of another individual’s ballot, although family members and caregivers could deliver another person’s ballot but would need to sign a registry at the polling place. People not authorized to deliver the ballot to a polling place could be fined $500 for every ballot they turn in.

The idea has been somewhat controversial, drawing fire from organizations that aim to help people vote as well as election administrators. In fact, the effort to get the initiative on the ballot passed by a single vote in the state Senate last April.

But LR-129’s chief sponsor, Republican Sen. Al Olszewski, said the voters need to consider this issue. Both in an interview and during the legislative debate, he told a story of this “frail” elderly woman who had two people come to her door and say they were sent to collect her ballot. He reported that after feeling intimidated, she ended up giving her ballot to them.  

Olszewski said that this referendum doesn’t prevent certain people from helping turn in ballots, like a friend or family member, or even an acquaintance with permission. He says that this initiative is for protection of those who are “developmentally disabled, the elderly, the people who are at home alone, who feel intimidated.”

Although Olszewski stressed the proposal was about helping people be free from those coming to their door to collect ballots, many supporters connect this effort to the larger issue of voter fraud. Rep. Peggy Webb, a Republican from Billings, said she supports LR-129 because she has heard of people knocking on doors to collect ballots, asking how they voted, then placing the ballot in one of two backpacks.

“Our elections are very important and we need to do whatever we can to try and prevent voter fraud,” she said.

But the people who run elections in Montana, along with many opponents, countered the concerns about voter fraud are often overstated. Dayna Causby, Missoula County elections administrator, said she does not think there are any real concerns for ballot security.

“If voters do not feel comfortable giving their ballot to someone they don’t know, they shouldn’t,” Causby said, adding they have several alternatives, which include; the mail option, ballot drop-off box, the courthouse, ballot drop-off box outside the courthouse for after hours, ballot drop-off box after hours at the election center or just bringing in your ballot to the elections center themselves.

Causby and other election administrators expressed concerns that the solution proposed may cause more problems than it resolves. If LR-129 is approved by voters, election officials would have to write down people’s names who drop off ballots, creating a list of authorized people who had done nothing wrong and potentially slowing down the process.

“I feel it has a lot of potential of creating lines just for absentee drop-off,” Causby said.

Republican Sen. Dan Salomon from Ronan echoed Causby, asking, “Are we creating more of an issue or are we solving a problem?”

He said he worried that there are too many exemptions as to who can collect ballots. He worried that with polling workers needing to collect signatures for each ballot “is counterproductive to ballot security which is what this whole initiative is about.”  

Democrats at the national and state level have fought bans on what opponents have called “ballot harvesting,” saying their party’s volunteers simply want to make it easier for people to cast their votes. Missoula Democrat Rep. Bryce Bennett said the initiative is, “unnecessary, unneeded, and harmful,” adding that it will make it harder for “hard-working Montanans to have a voice in their democracy.”

He also said that there have been no reported cases of someone stealing or tampering with someone else’s ballot here in Montana.

Olszewski is leaving this issue up to the people of Montana, “there’s good arguments on both sides,” he said, “it’s a classic issue, it’s one that I thought is a good one to put out in front of the people and let the people decide.”

This story was produced by the Community News Service, a service of the University of Montana School of Journalism. Student reporter Caitlyn Patel can be reached via email at caitlyn.patel@umontana.edu.