The special election to select a new congressman for Montana is less than 80 days away and the process for conducting the election has been turned into a political football.
First, Gov. Steve Bullock scheduled the election at the earliest possible time, 85 days after Ryan Zinke resigned to serve as President Trump’s secretary of the Interior. This puts the election on Thursday, May 25, just before Memorial Day weekend. This date will interfere with graduation plans, family vacations and other weekend activities. June 6 (the first Tuesday in June) was suggested and would match up well with the schedule of our normal primary elections and still would have fit into the statutory parameters for the when the election would have to be held. By holding an election the Thursday before a holiday weekend when better dates were available, the governor is engaging in election manipulation and voter suppression.
In addition, Senate Bill 305, the “mail ballot bill,” has been introduced in the Legislature to allow counties the choice of whether to conduct the special election as an all-mail ballot. This bill, if passed, will result in additional voter suppression. By allowing counties to require a mail-in ballot, voters who prefer to vote in person at the polls will be disenfranchised. We have a system in Montana where we can choose to vote at the polls or request an absentee ballot or vote early in person at our county courthouse. Why would we want to limit the ways in which people can cast their ballot?
Montana has an exemplary reputation for how we conduct our elections. We generally have good turnouts and high voter confidence in the integrity of our system. Why would we want to risk that with a fundamental change in the way we conduct elections? Mail ballots may not reach the intended voter, may not reach the voter on time, may get lost once received by the voter who does not usually choose to vote by mail, and many people neglect to change their voter registration address if they move. There is a lot that can go wrong. Why would Montana want to take the risk of passing this bill solely for such an important election that will choose our lone U.S. representative?
The main argument by proponents of SB 305 point to the potential cost savings. There would likely be a cost saving to counties, which could come to about $500,000 across the state. This would be the difference between hiring election judges and having polling locations versus the mailing cost to send all registered voters a ballot. But we must keep in mind that a lot of these “savings” will be cost-shifted onto voters for return postage. There are some things in which cost should not be the primary consideration, and holding free and fair elections is one of those.
I will steadfastly oppose SB 305. It is bad policy and a risk we cannot afford to take. We are unfortunately stuck with Governor Bullock’s poor decision for a date to hold the election; we should not compound the problem by messing around with the way we conduct elections. In this special election we should encourage people to vote by conducting it the same way we conduct other elections, and not create confusion by needlessly forcing fundamental changes on the voters and taxpayers of Montana.
Rep. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, represents House District 57. He is chair of the House State Administration Committee.