Bill limiting ballot collection passes House Judiciary Committee

Keith Schubert Daily Montanan
Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A nearly identical bill to Ballot Interference Protection Act, which was struck down in court last fall for disproportionately affecting rural Native American communities’ ability to collect voter ballots, passed the House Judiciary Committee on a 12-7 partyline vote with Republican support.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Noland, R-Bigfork, was unfazed by the court ruling and said the bill is necessary to safeguard elections. “If a court makes a bad ruling, does that stop us from making a good law just because they did something wrong?”

House Bill 406 would ban get-out-the-vote efforts by organizations to collect ballots, which opponents of the bill said are necessary in Montana, where not everyone has the means to get to an elections office.

Daliyah Killsback, deputy political director of Western Native Voice, said ballot collection is a critical way for American Indians to participate in elections.

“This bill would disproportionately impact our communities, especially those on rural reservations … higher (voter) turnout for Indian Country has been proven in our data when ballots are collected,” she said.

She also said bills like this and BIPA are nothing new. “Ever since American Indians have had the right to vote in this country, our right has been attacked by bills that place barriers for our peoples.”

In an attempt to safeguard elections, the bill would require ballot collectors to be a caregiver, family member, household member, or acquaintance — a term that the courts ruled was too vague.

Noland said he is not aware of any examples of ballot interference on Indian reservations.

Opponents of the bill also said it would bar people who lack access to transportation and face other socio-economic barriers from participating in elections.

While the new bill would remove the six-ballot limit that a person could collect, Sam Forstag with Montana’s American Civil Liberties Union said the bill is not significantly different enough from BIPA and would ultimately face the same fate while costing taxpayers money along the way.

“This is law that has been litigated and has been ruled on by multiple district courts in the state of Montana,” he said. “I would offer to you the responsible thing to do … is to vote to table this bill and trust that our district courts have no intention of reversing themselves within two years of multiple rulings.”

During discussion, Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell, called the bill a “collection integrity bill” and echoed Noland’s argument that it is needed for safe and fair elections.

Because there wasn’t a single documented claim where voter integrity was sacrificed in Montana, Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, said, “it’s hard to believe that’s really the claim when the natural result of the bill would be, in fact, to suppress the vote. So I see this as a voter suppression bill.”

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