The Ravalli County Clerk and Archivist agreed in testimony Monday that three election laws passed in the last legislative session were a “solution in search of a problem.”
Regina Plettenberg’s testimony came on the sixth day of hearings in Yellowstone County District Court, where the Montana Democratic Party and a handful of other plaintiffs, including Blackfeet Nation, the American Civil Liberties Union and Western Native Voice, are challenging three recently passed election laws on the grounds that they would create unconstitutional barriers to voting access in the state.
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The GOP-backed laws were passed with the idea that they would bolster election integrity in Montana, but so far testimony at the hearing has debunked the theory of any widespread voter fraud in the state. state and claimed the laws would only create more confusion. and unfair barriers for indigenous and younger populations.
Since the 2020 election in Montana and across the country, a growing number of people have questioned the US election, alleging the 2020 election was fraudulent, and some are going so far as to claim that Donald Trump won the election. .
On Monday, Plettenberg testified that increased scrutiny has created more of a burden on herself and her fellow poll workers in Ravalli County. She said she has received increasing requests for public information from lawmakers and election integrity groups about things like tabulators.
“I think the scrutiny that we’re under has definitely increased, which puts a lot more pressure on election administrators,” she said. Noting that most of the concerns, which she says are real, are related to tabulators and physical election security.
However, Plettenberg said she supports moving the late registration deadline to before Election Day or effectively ending same-day registration, as proposed in Bill 176.
“I think for a lot of counties, especially rural counties, resources are limited… I just think it makes it very difficult for some counties with the resources they have with staff and everything to have late registration open on the day of the ballot. I think today is a day where we need to focus on counting the ballots, making sure we are doing all of this with precision,” she said.
Additionally, she said she thinks voters will get used to the new deadlines.
“I think…like any deadline we give…I think people will push it back until that deadline, but I think the more awareness and education we give to our constituents…I think voters will get used to it. at this time,” she said.
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But Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with expertise in election administration, election law and voter behavior, said ending same-day voter registration could be detrimental. Mayer testified as a witness on behalf of the plaintiffs.
In fact, Mayer said the three laws together would only “raise the costs of voting” — essentially saying together they would make it harder to vote.
“The impacts of laws that increase the costs of voting will have a disproportionate effect on specific populations; in particular, the effects are going to be greatest among low-propensity voters, young, economically disadvantaged, poorly educated and already vulnerable populations, as these are the groups that will have the most difficulty in overcoming these costs,” he said. -it testifies.
As for Election Day, Mayer said that was when voters were most engaged.
“The main effect is that Election Day is by far the most important day of the entire election cycle; there is simply no other day that has the same significance,” he said. “And so the reason that Election Day registration has such a big effect is that voters who aren’t activated, they don’t start paying attention to campaigns until late in the process, or they wait to make a decision. to have the most up-to-date information, and that’s why it has such an effect. It’s prominent in a way that no other day is.
Since 2006, 70,277 Montana residents have registered to vote on Election Day, representing 1.16% of total registered voters, according to a report by Mayer. His report also showed that people who rely on same-day voter registration are about 17 years younger than the average voter in Montana.
Mayer also called voter fraud in Montana “extremely rare” and criticized the idea that the laws would make Montana’s elections more secure.
“These changes do nothing; they produce no benefit. They have nothing to do with the integrity of the electoral process,” he said. “These changes are what the public administration literature would call pure deadweight; these are things that only make it harder to vote.
In particular, he said Senate Bill 169 would make it harder for students to vote because it would downgrade student IDs to secondary ID needed to vote. And he said imposing more restrictions on ballot collection, as Bill 530 proposes, would have a disproportionate impact on already vulnerable populations, including people living on reservations and People with Disabilities.
Bernie Franks-Ongoy, director of Disability Rights Montana, testified for plaintiffs about the unique barriers faced by people with disabilities when trying to vote. Disability Rights is a Montana nonprofit organization that protects and advocates for the human, legal, and civil rights of Montana people with disabilities.
“There are several different barriers… you are going to have the transport barrier, you can have a postal barrier, you can have a registration barrier to vote… it could be a simple barrier like having access to a pencil or a pen. The obstacles are huge,” she said.
Franks-Ongoy said his organization assists hundreds of voters with disabilities each year and welcomed same-day voter registration.
“I think it’s absolutely vital for voters with disabilities to have that opportunity. Voters with disabilities have very complicated lives. And you know, every two years, whether it’s time for them to vote, maybe they didn’t make it in time,” she said. Adding: ‘I struggle when people say, well, ‘why don’t we register to vote early? Until you live the life of a disabled person or walk through their shoes, it gets pretty complicated to make sure that sometimes happens before Election Day.
And she agreed with Mayer that Election Day holds special significance for voters.
“Election Day…there’s something special about Election Day, and there’s an extra effort that many different organizations put in on Election Day that they don’t do until Election Day” , she said.
When asked why she decided to testify in the case, Franks-Ongoy criticized laws for hindering the ability of people with disabilities to vote.
“I think it’s pretty impressive some of the laws that we take our time and energy to try to prohibit people with disabilities from voting…none of those laws have anything to do with integrity election,” she said.