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Turnout and Same-DayVoting

Did It Sink Conrad Burns?

by PAT WILLIAMS

Do you remember those happy scenes of Iraqi voters walking out of the voting places with a smile on their face and a purple covered finger stuck proudly in the air? That voting process is called same-day voting.

America’s men and women are dying everyday in Iraq to assure the right of the Iraqis to cast their ballots, and yet here at home some high, elected officials are trying to prevent our own citizens, right here in Montana, from having same-day voting–the identical process that we all cheered in Iraq.

Last year, for the first time, Montanans enjoyed the benefits of being able to register and vote on election day. The 2006 turnout was remarkable, particularly given the perhaps understandable voter lethargy and low turnout of the previous several decades, not only here in Montana but also throughout the nation. Less than exciting candidates, tepid policies, and citizen frustration and confusing voter registration and election day rules all combined to dramatically reduce election day turnout.

In the election of 1960, an astonishing 86% of registered Montanans turned out at the polls on election day. That healthy turnout has shrunk through the years to an embarrassing 54% in 2002. That long decline ended last November with Senators Conrad Burns and Jon Tester at the top of the ticket and a new Montana law known as election-day or same-day registration, which helped our voter turnout jump to around 70%.

Almost 4,000 Montanans responded to the new law by both registering and voting on election day and helping to boost turnout. At the Gallatin County Courthouse, so many people showed up that the final voter cast his votes at five minutes to midnight. In Missoula County the last voter cast his ballot at 9:32 that evening. Of course, the polls close throughout the state at 8:00 p.m. but the law has always allowed those standing in line at that hour to wait and cast their vote, and they did"with the most determined people waiting almost four hours.

Eight states have same-day registration: Connecticut, Idaho, Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming, and Montana. Each has found that making it easier for people to vote has dramatically increased citizen participation in that critical democratic process.

Can same-day registration and voting have its problems? Of course. We should all expect that same-day registration laws have adequate safeguards to prevent fraud. We also must provide local election officials with enough election day staff to handle the crowds of people who wish to both register and vote on that day. However, we should also be determined to correct any problems that might exist by curing the difficulties, not by making it more difficult to vote.

Unfortunately two bills are now before the Montana Legislature to do just that and, unfortunately, they have the support of the Secretary of State. Their stated reasons for wanting to repeal same-day registration range from "diminished integrity of the election process" to "somewhat chaotic." It is interesting to note, however, that in almost every state, including Montana, the opposition to same-day registration comes from Republican officials. They don’t seem to like high turnouts–our former Republican Senator Conrad Burns’ defeat might be a case in point.

Montana’s new same-day registration is working and represents a refreshing departure from America’s sometimes regrettable history of using voter registration laws to blatantly practice partisan and racial disfranchisement.

PAT WILLIAMS served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at The University of Montana where he also serves as a Senior Fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West.