Vote Suppression, Gallatin County Style

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When you can’t get voters for you, the best strategy is simply to prevent them from voting, or make it as difficult as possible. That’s what it appears the three Republican Gallatin County commissioners are doing by refusing to put a polling place on campus and asking students to vote at a location that is difficult to get to an even dangerous. On top of that, they’re adding even more voters to this crowded, difficult-to-access spot.

In the Bozeman Chronicle, reporter Troy Carter reports that commissioners are “offended” that anyone would suggest their motives are partisan, but voter suppression, under the guise of preventing imaginary fraud and limiting polling places for demographic groups less inclined to vote Republican is national and state Republican practice. Ask the college students the GOP tried to disenfranchise in the state, or the ones that are often accused without evidence of voting fraudulently by the GOP—or look at the coordinated effort to not provide adequate polling facilities in urban and reservation areas for evidence of this approach to winning elections by denying the ballot.

The Bozeman example is a small illustration of the effort to make voting more difficult, for no reason. Kia Abbey of Forward Montana told the commissioners:

In June, Forward Montana, the Associated Students of Montana State University, Disability Rights Montana, Montana Conservation Voters and League of Women Voters met with you to express our safety concerns with the Hope Lutheran Church polling location. Without a sidewalk, a bike lane, a shoulder, or a bus route, it is largely inaccessible without a private vehicle.
We know there are alternatives on MSU’s campus that are accessible by bike, on foot, and by bus in addition to private vehicle.

Unlike the Chronicle’s headline suggests, that’s not just “liberal” groups asking for change; it’s a broad group of people interested in ensuring equal voting access. And it’s an easy problem to fix.

Nathan Kosted, with the Montana Human Rights Network pointed out that the commissioners were not only undermining public safety, but doing it practically in secret:

Shame on you for placing citizens who want to vote at risk.
You are doing democracy a disservice. You think this is a public meeting? It is 9am on Tuesday morning. Why is this not in the evening?
Most people work during the day and students are in class. You are trying to hide this. You want as few people as possible here. You want to limit public comment. You have already made your mind up on this issue, this meeting is a sham. You’ve already moved polling places off campus and you’re trying to move the rest.

We need to fight Republican efforts to disenfranchise those unattracted to their increasingly narrow, reactionary view. Sign the petition today to let the Gallatin County commissioners know they can’t get away with this.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.

His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.

In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

11 Comments

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  • Couple questions are swirling around in my head. First of all can MT college students vote in a district that’s not their residence?

    And when has a non-existent bike lane stopped someone from riding to a destination in Bozeman?

    • Since I have no takers I’l answer my own questions. Back in the seventies I attended college in Chicago. In November of my freshman year we had Dem. operatives knocking on our doors asking us to come to the local precinct and vote. My response at the time was how can I vote? I’m from another state. They looked at me with straight faces and said it didn’t matter.

      Based on this experience the feigned outrage happening in Bozeman is regret that the commissioners have cracked down on election fraud.

  • See also “Forward Montana, UM students fume over proposal to shutter 13 voting locations” (12/13/2009)

    http://missoulian.com/news/local/forward-montana-um-students-fume-over-proposal-to-shutter-voting/article_3293bc36-e7ac-11de-af27-001cc4c002e0.html

    See also “Forward Montana confuses Gallatin voters with calls about ballots” (11/3/14)

    http://www.bozemandailychronicle.com/news/politics/missoula-group-confuses-gallatin-voters-with-calls-about-ballots/article_56a3068e-63a5-11e4-be8a-ef00b6d9b923.html

    SNIP: Manhattan resident Darlene Robinson, 84, received a voicemail Friday from a man who said he was with Forward Montana, a nonprofit political group based in Missoula.

    “Hello, my name is Alex. I’m calling on behalf of the Forward Montana Foundation. We received an absentee ballot from you and unfortunately it was rejected for some reason. To fix this issue you must go to the courthouse at 311 W. Main St. or call 406-582-3060 by 5 p.m. tonight. Thank you very much,” the voicemail recording said.

    When Robinson called, staff at the Gallatin County elections department said her ballot was fine. Several other voters who called the county after receiving the same message were told the same thing.

    ————————

    When our polling place in Missoula was moved from within our neighborhood, to a downtown location, I don’t recall anyone crying “Voter Suppression!” even though free public parking in the new location can be difficult and the new location sits 5 to 10 times further away from our neighborhood than the previous polling place.

    Yes, I’m against “Voter Suppression” but I’m not sure that the Bozeman case qualifies as that. If someone wants to vote they have other options besides just going to the polling booth on Election Day. They can take personal responsibility and request to vote by mail, for example.

    RE: Big Swede’s Q “First of all can MT college students vote in a district that’s not their residence?”

    I too have long wondered the same thing, based on my personal experience of voting while attending college. When I was an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside (in the Kenosha/Racine area) I made sure to vote in every election, but I voted in my hometown (via absentee ballot) of Elkhart Lake because that was still my ‘permanent address’ while in college.

    I have no idea if other students did like I did, or if there was (or is) a requirement or guideline about this, but I certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable voting in Kenosha County elections simply because I lived in the dorms.

    I also seem to recall that when I was in college there was no general opportunity to vote by mail, unless you had a good excuse and got an absentee ballot. So, in my mind, voting was actually harder back.

    Again, I certainly want all eligible voters to vote in elections, and it seems like there are plenty of options now-a-days to take that responsibility seriously and cast your ballot, at least compared with more limited options in the past. Thanks.

    • I don’t know whether this will help but here is the framework for answering the question you pose in Montana.

      First, Section 13-1-111, MCA, provides:
      “13-1-111. Qualifications of voter. (1) A person may not vote at elections unless the person is: . . .
      (c) a resident of the state of Montana and of the county in which the person offers to vote for at least 30 days, except as provided in 13-2-514; and
      . . .”
      Second, Section 1-1-215, MCA, provides the rules for determining residence:
      “. . .Every person has, in law, a residence. In determining the place of residence, the following rules are to be observed:
      (1) It is the place where a person remains when not called elsewhere for labor or other special or temporary purpose and to which the person returns in seasons of repose.
      (2) There may be only one residence. If a person claims a residence within Montana for any purpose, then that location is the person’s residence for all purposes unless there is a specific statutory exception.
      (3) A residence cannot be lost until another is gained.
      (4), (5), (6) . . .
      (7) The residence can be changed only by the union of act and intent.”
      see LIMA SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 12 v. SIMONSEN, 210 Mont. 100, 110 & 111, 683 P. 2d 471 (1984).

      Consider whether Jim, Jane, John and Janet who attend MSU are residents of Gallatin County.

      Jim was born and raised in Bozeman where his parents live and he lives with them.

      Jane was born and raised in New Jersey, ran away from home after high school, attends MSU and works as a waitress to support herself.

      John was born and raised in Billings where his parents live and where he lives when college is not in session. He works in Billings in the summer.

      Janet and her husband are from California, bought a house in Bozeman and her husband works for one of the local tech companies.

      I would suggest that Jim, Jane and Janet are residents of Gallatin County and eligible to vote. John is not.

      As far as the choice of the polling place, this may be an instance of a variant of Hanlon’s Law: “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.”

      • Thanks for sharing the specific section from the MCA. Looks like I was a “John” in my undergraduate days in Wisconsin. I would suggest that there may be a fair number of “John’s” in places like Bozeman and Missoula who are not voting in the correct location, based on a lack of residency as outlined in the MCA.

        Does anyone know if groups like Forward Montana or Montana Wilderness Association (who claim to run expansive voter registration efforts) actually help educate these “John’s” to make sure they are voting where required?

        Again, I’m totally in favor of all eligible voters voting every election, whether via mail-in-ballot or in-person at the correct polling place.

        • The law makes it clear that the only two required elements are 30 days of residence and union of act and intent to change residence, i.e. registering to and casting a vote. It’s assinine to suggest that FMT and MWA have a duty to explain this to potential registrants based upon some hazy assumptions about whether they go home to mom and dad or not. I see nothing in the law that would lead me to believe that living in your university town away from your parents would by default be a Section 1-1-215(1), MCA, situation. In fact, going home for two months in the summer to save a little money strikes me as a “special or temporary purpose.”

  • RE: “Vote Suppression”

    Anyone with the Missoula County Democrats or Forward Montana going to raise a stink about this? Of course not….

    It sure looks like voting in Missoula County on the record-setting $158 million school bond was “more convenient for people who live in city limits than for those who live in more rural parts of the county.”

    See today’s Missoulian editorial:: http://missoulian.com/news/opinion/editorial/missoulian-editorial-missoula-must-rethink-drop-off-locations-voters-not/article_a24fa11f-28b3-5d95-a317-87324234f6df.html

    “For instance, voters who live in Lolo, Bonner, Clinton or Seeley Lake – which are part of the high school district – had to make sure to mail their ballots several days before Election Day, or travel as far as 100 miles round-trip to Missoula and back to turn in a ballot. There were no drop-off sites in any of those communities…..

    In Missoula County, ballot drop-off locations are chosen – and paid for – by the public entities that have items on the ballot. This election, those items included city council races and school bond requests. MCPS and the city each submitted a list of locations to the elections office, with the understanding that they would share the costs of staffing each of those locations.

    MCPS opted not to offer any locations outside of municipal boundaries because it would have had to bear those costs by itself. The cost, however, is negligible – a few hundred dollars per drop-off location. Surely it would have been worth the slight additional cost to ensure the enfranchisement of all voters in the high school district.

    Regardless, MCPS should not have been allowed to choose these locations. Neither should the city. No group with any vested interest in a ballot item should. For every election, polling locations should be selected by an impartial party – namely, the Missoula County Elections Office, which is directly answerable to county voters….voters must urge the elections office to stop letting vested interests determine polling locations.

    The placement of polling and ballot drop-off locations is a key aspect of election fairness. No group with a request on the ballot should have the ability to make it easier for certain communities to cast their ballots, and more difficult for others.”

    • This is a bad situation and needs to be addressed. Not sure about Forward Montana but I’ll bring it up at our next Missoula County Democrats meeting. We are actively doing outreach to outlying areas, recruiting precinct committeemen and women, and searching for candidates. I appreciate your continued confidence in the local Democratic Central Committee, in which you’ve been so active.

      • Thanks, Pete, for acknowledging “this is a bad situation and needs to be addressed.” That’s one reason I brought it up.

        Also, thanks for bringing it up at the next Missoula County Democrats meeting. I’m also not a member or a supporter of the local Democratic Central Committee, Pete, so not sure what to make of your snarky reply there. For the record, we used to be members and supporters of Forward Montana. Thanks.

  • My snark was probably unnecessary but I was just following up on your, “Anyone with the Missoula County Democrats or Forward Montana going to raise a stink about this? Of course not….” That’s rather presumptuous, don’t you think. While I believe it’s the responsibility of those living in the more rural areas of the county to demand that the elections office put drop off boxes in their communities, Missoula County Democrats will also request it, if I have any say in the matter. And as a former member of Forward Montana, you should ask them to advance this notion, too.

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