Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch was in Hamilton Thursday, talking about the state’s controversial same-day voter registration, what she sees as the biggest challenges facing Montana election officials and the Democratic Party’s selection of a new candidate for U.S. Senate.
If it passes in November, initiative LR126 will eliminate same-day voter registration, a move McCulloch opposes as the state’s top elections administrator.
“Since 2006, 29,000 Montana voters have used same-day voter registration,” said McCulloch. “Most of those are people who moved across the state or moved across the city and they are getting their kids in school, they are getting their house set up and they are getting into new jobs and the last thing they think about – because they don’t have to – is registering to vote in their new place. They can do that on Election Day.
“The other thing that is important is this is the fail-safe system – if they have registered to vote at the Department of Motor Vehicles when they got their license or at a social service place or someone that came to their door and those folks forgot to turn it in – they think they are registered and they go to the polls on election day to vote and find out they aren’t registered. This is the only fail-safe that gives them the opportunity to vote.
“As the chief elections official for the state of Montana, it’s my job to see that everyone eligible to vote gets a chance to vote and people have very patiently waited in line to vote and I think if they are willing, we ought to give them the chance to vote.
“I think taking that away is a huge mistake.”
Controversy over the measure is caused by the belief that fraud could take place. McCulloch said that election fraud cannot happen, that people can only vote once because they can only get a ballot one time in this system.
She said the wording or language on the ballot deceptive – the ballot states “to be in compliance with the National Voter Rights Act.”
“Montana is already in compliance with that act – we have always been. It is a very false title to the bill and it’s put there purposely because good-meaning voters will think ‘we want to be in compliance with this National Voter Rights Act’ and we already are.
“Because I administer the election I don’t usually come out for against the ballot issues. But this one I have been so vocal about for years that the cat’s already out of the bag. So, I’ll speak against this.
“Because I’m the chief elections officer I think it’s my duty.”
The biggest challenge facing Montana election officials is being able to get trained election judges. Missoula County needs over 700 trained election judges. The average age of election judges in Montana is 78.
For each election, the election judge may put in a 24-hour day.
“Actually they put in a very long day – they have to set up the poll place so they start at 5 or 6 in the morning, stay through the election and some of them count the elections. So that’s the most difficult thing.”
McCulloch said she sees the need to vote by mail.
“The laws are becoming so complicated and they are always changing and the election judges have to know those laws so that’s why I have put in bills for vote by mail,” she said.
In the 2014, Montana primary 68 percent of the voters voted by absentee ballot.
“I think the time has come to go all vote by mail. It’s convenient, easy, people can get a ballot 30 days ahead and they can sit at their table, read information, do research and come back to it. It’s so convenient to vote and then everybody who is registered to vote gets a ballot. You can get busy and forget to go to the polls on Election Day.
“I have provisions for secure ballot drop boxes so people don’t have to mail them – young people don’t carry stamps.”
McCulloch said that voting by mail is secure.
“After you’ve voted you have to sign your name to the out side of the envelope. Every single one of those envelopes is checked against your signature of when you registered to vote. It’s not random – every single envelope is checked.
“I think the time has come for vote by mail and all the election administrators want it.”
McCulloch believes voting by mail is a reason that no citizens initiatives qualified for the ballot – the first time this has happened since 1972.
“18 went through our office and 12 were approved for signature gathering but because people are used to waiting until the primary to get the bulk of their signatures and 68 percent of the voters voted by absentee ballot and didn’t go to the polls they didn’t collect enough signatures.”
McCulloch recommends starting earlier to gather signatures at community events rather than just primaries. They can start in the month of July a year ahead. Then the signature sheets are due in the SOS office in June.
“We already have one turned in for the 2016 election and they can’t start getting signatures until July 2015. But they’ve already gone through the process and been approved. It was one of the ones that qualified for signature gathering this time, but didn’t gather enough signatures. They start fresh collecting signatures.”
McCulloch listed the dates and procedure for the upcoming Senate race.
“Senator Walsh had until August 11 which is the 85th day before the election to withdraw and he met that and then the appointment must be made no later than the 76th day before the election which is August 20 and the Democratic State Central Committee meets in convention and appoints that person.
The convention will be held this Saturday, August 16, in Helena. It includes all the county chairs and co-chairs, all the statewide elected officials, federal elected officials, all the officers of the state democratic party all the affiliates of the state democratic party – around 150 delegates.
“They’ll meet and have a voting procedure to appoint that candidate and they’ll hand that appointment in to me and I’ll put that person on the ballot. Appointment have to be made by August 20 – it’s the 76th day because we certify the ballots on August 21 the 75th day.
“When the candidate is appointed on Saturday they have to sign an acknowledgement of the acceptance of their appointment and they have to pay a filing fee of $1,740 – one percent of their salary.”