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Montana GOP looks to end same-day voter registration

A Republican ballot initiative would end same-day registration in the state, which helps many college students vote.
Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place, Nov. 6, 2012, in Billings, Mont.
Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place, Nov. 6, 2012, in Billings, Mont.

Voting experts say allowing people to register and vote on the same day is among the most effective ways to boost participation in the election process. So naturally, Republicans in states across the country have been looking to crack down on same-day registration. And in Montana, they got a step closer last week to ending the practice.

A GOP-backed bill passed last year by state legislators would let Montanans vote this November on whether to end same-day registration. On Wednesday, the state’s Supreme Court ruled against a challenge to the legislation from labor and voting rights groups, clearing the way for the issue to appear on the ballot.

The measure’s opponents had challenged language included in the ballot initiative that incorrectly said ending same-day registration was required to comply with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. The court ruled by 5-1 that the false language must be changed but that the initiative can go forward.

Over 28,000 Montanans—in a state with just over one million people—have used same-day registration since it was instituted in 2005. It’s especially convenient for college students, who often move frequently.

But supporters of the GOP initiative say it ups the chances for fraud, though almost no in-person voter fraud has been detected in the state. And last year, the Republican sponsor of an earlier version of the legislation, Rep. Ted Washburn, suggested a different motivation behind the effort.

Asked by a Democratic opponent of the bill who he thought should not vote, Washburn referred to “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.”

College students, like blacks and Hispanics who also are often affected by restrictions on voting, tend to vote Democratic.

Montana’s same-day registration process already is more restrictive than that of some other states. It allows for registration only at county election offices, not polling sites, meaning voters need to travel to two different destinations to register and vote on Election Day.

Montana is far from the only state where the GOP is trying to limit same-day registration. A sweeping voting law passed last year in North Carolina ended the practice there. And a bill that would do essentially the same thing in Ohio is scheduled to receive a hearing this week.

Nor is Big Sky Country alone in trying to make voting harder for young voters. North Carolina's voting law ended a popular pre-registration program for 16- and 17-year olds., which had helped many high-school students, especially those from under-privileged backgrounds, to participate.