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Voter suppression? Bill to restrict absentee ballots in Montana faces opposition

Many who testified against HB455 said requiring in-person requests for absentee ballots every election would place a special burden on rural voters, who may live many miles from an election office, and disabled voters. (MTN News)

HELENA — A bill making it more difficult to request and receive absentee ballots in Montana ran into a wall of opposition Monday, as opponents called it unnecessary and an “another attempt at voter suppression.”

The bill from Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, would require voters to request absentee ballots in-person, every election year, instead of signing up to be on a permanent list to receive absentee ballots in the mail.

Supporters said under the current system, absentee ballots often continue to be mailed to addresses, even though the voter has moved or died, creating opportunities for voter fraud.

But opponents – including county election officials, and advocates for the disabled, students and Native Americans – told the House State Administration Committee that Montana’s system has plenty of built-in security checks to prevent voter fraud.

“There’s no widespread cases of voter fraud; there’s not really an issue,” said Keaton Sun Child, political director for Western Native Voice. “So, don’t spend time fixing something that’s not broken. And, in our opinion this is just another attempt at voter suppression.”

In Montana, any registered voter can request to have an absentee ballot mailed to them, in writing. They also can ask to be placed on a list of voters that received an absentee ballot every election.

At least three-fourths of Montana voters usually vote with absentee ballots, either by mail or dropping them off in-person, at polling places or county election offices.

House Bill 455 would abolish the list of voters who get a ballot each election, and instead require voters to sign up, in person at the election office, to get an absentee ballot for each election.

It also would require absentee ballots to be returned to the election office by 6 p.m. on Election Day, rather than 8 p.m., when polls close.

Sheldon-Galloway said her bill is an attempt to stop a practice of ballots being sent to homes where the voter no longer lives.

Opponents, including county election officials, said steps already are taken to ensure that absentee-ballot lists are up to date and that ballots are not voted by people who aren’t registered.

Regina Plettenberg, Ravalli County clerk and recorder, said county election offices check death records, obituaries and other data to see who has died, so they can update voter lists. She and others also said that signature checks and other practices prevent voter fraud, on mailed ballots.

Many who testified against HB455 said requiring in-person requests for absentee ballots every election would place a special burden on rural voters, who may live many miles from an election office, and disabled voters.

Rachel Schmidt, speaking for the Associated Students of Montana State University, also said the bill would prevent students from requesting an absentee ballot from their hometown in Montana. Instead, they’d be forced to vote at their college address, when they might prefer to vote on local issues and offices from their hometown, she said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.