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Bills Could Impact Native American Voters

Two bills being proposed in the Montana Legislature could make it more difficult for Native Americans to vote in future elections.

House Bill 176 aims to revise late voter registration and will close late voter registration at noon of the day before the election. There will be exceptions for military and overseas electors.

Senate Bill 169 seeks to revise voter identification laws and revise certain identification requirements for voter registration, voting and provisional voting. “We are concerned that both bills will make it harder for Native Americans to have access to the ballot box,” said Keaton Sunchild, political director for Western Native Voice. “House Bill 176 would limit days we could get registered and 169 would make it harder to vote due to ID restrictions.”

HB 176 passed its third reading in the House by a vote of 64-34 on Feb. 5. A hearing is scheduled in the Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 17.

The bill includes that the election administrator shall close regular registrations for 30 days before any election and publish a notice specifying the day regular registrations will close and the availability of the later registration option.

SB 169 passed its second reading in the Senate by a 31-19 margin on Feb. 10 and its third reading, 31-19, on Feb. 11.

“We know that there are lots of folks on reservations who have to travel long distances to either vote or register,” Sunchild said. “So, if both or either of these bills are passed into law, that would place financial burdens on the ballot box.”

SB 169 sponsor Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, said, “This is all about trying to make sure any Montana voter can vote in Montana elections.”

As long with standard identification such as a driver’s license or a tribal ID card, people can use utility bills in conjunction with a photo as an alternative form or provide the last four numbers of their Social Security number. Cuffe said the reason for the bill’s creation wasn’t because of any claim of voting fraud of wrongdoing in the state.

“We have a pretty good system,” Cuffe said. “This is trying to make a good process better.”

The bill was referred to committee and had its first reading in the House on Monday, Feb. 15.

One of the proponents of the bill is Secretary of the State Christi Jacobsen.

“Passing a voter identification law for Montana will protect the integrity of elections,” Jacobsen testified to a Senate committee. “With election integrity at the center of our democracy, we must require identification for people to vote.”

An opponent during the Senate hearing called the proposal a sup- pression bill. He said the bill would creating an artificial barrier to keep eligible Montana residents from voting.

“This is going to result in fewer Montanans having their voices hear and their votes count,” he said.

Sen. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said during the committee meeting, “This is a new burden that you’re putting on people that don’t fit into those specific categories.”

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