Student Voting Rights Threatened in 2013 Montana Legislature

By Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
January 15, 2013

Students’ voting rights are again under fire as the 63rd Montana Legislature considers a number of bills that would disproportionately disenfranchise some of the most neglected segments of society.

In addition to undercutting the ability of many senior citizens, Native Americans and low-income Montanans — groups that are already especially vulnerable — to vote, the rights of students are also threatened.

This attitude toward students is, unfortunately, nothing new. During the 2011 Legislature, the Montana Kaimin, UM’s student newspaper, published a story detailing the offensive rhetoric surrounding a discussion of mail-in ballots.

In explaining why it would be reckless to encourage more students to vote, Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings, said, “Sometimes when you are in school, your brain doesn’t work real well.”

During the same mail-in ballot debate, Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, outlined a preposterous conspiracy theory in which Resident Assistants could work with Griz Card employees to steal students’ mail-in ballots, forge their signatures and then submit the fraudulent ballots. Such lack of faith in his own constituents is disturbing.

Edmunds has confirmed that he hopes to challenge current Sen. Max Baucus — who chairs the influential Senate Committee on Finance — and recently launched an under-construction website: champforsenate.com.

Even two years after failed attempts at disenfranchisement in 2011, student voting rights are still at risk due to common attitudes like these in the Legislature.

One of the most egregious offenders in the current session is Rep. Ted Washburn, who represents House District 69 (Belgrade, Manhattan and Three Forks).

He’s sponsoring HB 108, which would restrict acceptable voting identification to driver’s licenses, state-issued ID cards, and tribal ID cards and would beef up the requirements for Montanans to be listed in the statewide voter registration list.

Here’s the rub, though: Roughly 10 percent of Montanans — especially seniors, tribal members, low-income citizens and students — lack the proper identification enumerated in Washburn’s bill. While the bill makes provisions for waiving the $8 state ID for certain individuals, obtaining a fee waiver before even registering to vote is just one more unnecessary hindrance on exercising a constitutional right.

“Voter fraud … does not exist in Montana.” —Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch

After completing a statewide audit, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who is also the chief elections officer by virtue of her office, wrote an op-ed in the Billings Gazette, emphatically stating that, “Voter fraud … does not exist in Montana.”

A broad coalition of Montanans, from the ACLU to the AARP, all oppose HB 108. On Monday, Jan. 14, about 20 people spoke against the bill, while only two people spoke in favor of it.

In a Jan. 14 report by Charles S. Johnson for the Missoulian, Washburn explained who shouldn’t be voting: “The people that have summer homes, weekend homes; the 100,000 students that are here that don’t have Montana driver’s licenses, that don’t have any identification other than theirs at the college, who by the way have to wait one year to become a Montana resident in order to get resident tuition.”

Washburn is also sponsoring HB 30, a bill that would end same-day voter registration. He claims that this will also help reduce voter fraud, but that analysis does not balance the potential harm with the perceived benefit. To wit: Apart from anecdotal stories and observations of the hectic atmosphere on Election Day, Washburn cannot cite a single concrete instance of voter fraud.

The state of Montana, however, has registered nearly 30,000 legal voters on Election Day since we changed registration timetable laws in 2005. That’s 30,000 more voices in our democracy.

As the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Especially if that “fix” disenfranchises tens of thousands of people.

Voting is a fundamental part of our democracy, and every vote strengthens the legitimacy of our government — even if those voices don’t always vote for conservative legislators.

With all of this work being done to prevent voter fraud, is there anywhere that House Republicans are looking to expand voting rights? As it turns out, yes: If you’re a rich, landowning non-resident, the GOP wants you to be able to vote. On mill levies or bond issues, that is.

While the “rich” descriptor might be a (humorous) exaggeration, presumably out-of-staters who own property in Montana are fairly well-off. The bill also goes on to slightly redefine the definition of a “resident” in ways that could cause problems down the road.

The message here, however, is crystal clear: A cohort of conservative legislators aren’t concerned with the voting rights of students and other traditionally disenfranchised groups. If you need to exercise your country club voting privileges, though, vote away!

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