The soul of democracy is the ability of individuals to have a say in their own future, embodied in the right to vote. The spirit of a democracy is to expand the participation of citizens in elections so that every citizen of that democracy is not only eligible, but able to cast that vote. That expansion hasn’t been easy or trouble free, and it hasn’t been without opposition and bloodshed.
It’s the duty of those who run elections to ensure that the integrity of an individual’s vote is protected, whether the threat comes from mechanical error, fraudulent votes of others, coercion or bribery. We know that those threats are real, but the important issue is are they serious enough to change election results? While fraud may be attempted, it is also detected. That is especially true in close elections because every ballot is re- examined to determine the outcome.
The main threat to the integrity of the vote is an overzealous reaction of lawmakers to combat perceived fraud rather than actual fraud, and in doing so unwittingly (or purposely) discourage citizens from voting. That’s what we are seeing today in Montana and elsewhere as legislators work to eliminate our ability be on a permanent absentee voter list, register the same day as the election, and to compel us to show photographic proof of our identity when we register to vote in addition to when we vote.
We know that election fraud is attempted but is it of such a scale that every citizen needs to be inconvenienced to deter the relatively insignificant fraud that does occur, or do our present laws protect us well enough? Despite their belief in massive voter fraud the 2020 elections were actually very good for the Republican Party which made gains in control of state legislatures, governorships, and gained members in the House of Representatives. While making those gains, they did suffer three major losses, two Senate seats in Georgia, and, of course, the Presidency. Rather than accepting Trump’s loss as legitimate, they have claimed it was caused by massive voter fraud. They have not made that claim about the Georgia senate seats.
You can get a sense of the prevalence of known voter fraud by checking out the Voter Fraud Database of the Heritage Foundation, the respected conservative think-tank founded by Joseph Coors, which catalogues the instances of voter fraud in American elections since 1975. The database was created in 2016, but to date lists only 1311 cases out of millions and millions of votes cast. You can search it by year and state and find that they added 16 cases in 2020. For Montana, they list only one case which occurred in 2011.
Making it more difficult to vote decreases voter turnout, which is believed to favor Republicans. Conventional—but not necessarily correct—wisdom is that Democrats do well with increased voter turnout and Republicans do well with low voter turnout. So Democrats have done everything they can to increase voter turnout while Republicans have done their level best to not increase it. In this last election in Montana, we had the highest percentage turnout of registered voters since 1972 and the greatest number of voters in Montana’s history.
Despite—or because of—the large turnout Republicans swept the ballot with no Democrat getting more than 46% of the vote in the eight statewide contests, and also picked up seats in the Montana House and Senate. Pardon my skepticism, but with a record like that why on earth would they want to make it more difficult for people to vote?
The reason given for the restrictions is to restore confidence in the fairness of elections. An easier way would be to agree with all fifty state election officials and the courts that the election was fair and open and spread THAT word throughout the land.
Every obstacle placed on honest voters is contradictory to the spirit of the Montana Constitution; Article II, Section 13. “Right of suffrage. All elections shall be free and open, and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.” Suffrage meaning the ability to vote.
If we can defend the right to bear arms from being restricted, why can’t we defend the right to vote in the same way?
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek. His column runs in the Missoula Current and other papers.