Written By: Montana State Representative Bryce Bennett
Voting rights are my passion. Protecting and expanding voting rights was one of the reasons I first got into politics. Today our right to vote is under attack like never before, both from the Trump administration and Republican leaders here in Montana.
For four terms in the Montana House, I worked to make voting more open, accessible, fair, and transparent. I am proud to say our democracy is stronger today than when I first started my career in 2011. I passed legislation allowing people to register to vote by mail at the same time they register to vote. I also passed a bill to allow voters to confirm they want to vote by mail electronically. Last session I ended a long time frustration of mail voters. Now, if you don’t move, you don’t have to reconfirm you want to vote by mail. County election officials say this could keep up to 90% of absentee voters from falling off the list and would save tens-of-thousands of dollars.
But none of this was easy. There is a concerted effort by Republican leaders across Montana and in every state in our nation to make it harder for people to vote. We have seen it with voter ID laws in Texas and North Carolina and efforts to remove eligible voters from the rolls in Florida. In Montana, we saw Montana Republican Party leader Jeff Essmann attack voting by mail saying, “[v]ote-by-mail is designed to increase participation rates of lower propensity voters”, showing clearly how eager they are to block any effort to increase voter participation.
In my effort to advance voting rights bills I heard from Montanans across the state. Those discussions led me to create a list of values that speak not just to why any one bill should be passed, but why we need a voting system that puts voters first. These are nine important ideas defining my convictions on this issue and why we have to keep this issue front and center in our work.
#1 – Voting is a Right
The delegates who wrote Montana’s new Constitution in the early 1970’s made our right to vote explicitly clear. They said “All elections shall be free and open, and no power, civil or military, shall at any time interfere to prevent the free exercise of the right of suffrage.” While the federal Constitution only alludes to this right, Montana made our right ironclad.
When legislators take our oath to defend the Constitution, it means we are pledging ourselves to protecting the right of each and every Montanan to have their voice heard.
#2 – Voting is a Responsibility
Just as much as voting is a right, it is a responsibility we each have to cast our ballot each election. In America, no one can force you to vote, nor should they. Each of us has to make sure our democracy is at its strongest by being an active participant.
The responsibility is not just to cast your ballot. It extends to protecting the rights of others to cast their ballot and empower other Montanans to vote. It is so easy to lose ground if we are not always vigilant.
#3 – Every Vote Matters
Too often I hear people say “my vote doesn’t matter” or “our candidate can’t win anyway”. Looking at election results across Montana, we know that is just not true. Unlike larger states, Montana’s election results come down to razor-thin margins. In multiple elections, control of Montana’s House of Representatives came down to less than 5 votes. If a handful of people had justshown up who chose not to participate, Montana could have looked very different.
In 2016 over a quarter of eligible voters stayed home. In 2014, that number was just shy of half. If these people turned out to participate, they would have an enormous influence on elections at every level of our democracy.
#4 – Voting Rights are the Foundation of All Rights
One of the reasons I am so passionate about defending voting rights is because a strong democracy is the foundation of every other issue facing Montana. If thousands of voters are disenfranchised because of the GOP voter suppression agenda, how can the election results reflect the will of the people? If we have districts gerrymandered to look like a dinosaur, how can we elect people that truly speak for and represent a community?
If we want our government to look like Montana and reflect the values of Big Sky Country, we must make sure every voice is heard and every vote is counted.
#5 – Voting Rights Must be Accessible to Everyone
We need laws that open up voting to all Montanans. Doing this requires us to acknowledge one size does not fit all. In a state as diverse and as geographically vast as Montana, there is no single template that works for everyone. We need to build a system that meets voters where they are.
In many urban communities, we have found voting by mail greatly expands the number of people who participate in elections. However, in Native American reservations across this state, different styles of addressing houses makes this process more difficult for Election Administrators and counties. For young people and low-income families, the problem is more focused on trying to connect a ballot with a voter when they are moving so often.
We have to look at the needs of Montanans in every community to find out what they need to make voting accessible to them. Meeting voters where they are will ensure more votes are cast.
#6 – Voting Must be Transparent
Our election system is one of the best in the nation. Every year, Montanans report high confidence in the work our county leaders do to make sure every vote is counted properly. Despite their good work, Republican leaders continue to do everything they can to encourage Montanans to think there is widespread voter fraud, people being bussed in illegally, or people tampering with ballots.
To be clear – this is all false, but to combat it, transparency in our elections is key. Having Election Administrators show the public how ballots are collected, tabulated, and handled will immediately dispel the lies spread by the GOP.
We have done important work to pass strong campaign finance laws requiring candidates, parties, and PACs to disclose what they are spending and what they are doing to influence our elections. Continuing to build on this progress will keep our elections clean and fair.
#7 – Voters Deserve Something Worth Voting For
While this is not directly tied to voter rights policy, it is something that is critical to our democracy. The 2016 election was about as ugly as politics gets. While people have plenty of reasons to support the candidates they voted for, so much of the election was framed by digging up garbage on their opponent. While negative ads are effective at changing people’s minds, they also can sicken people of the whole system. I cannot tell you how many people told me “why would I want to participate in a system this gross.”
Voters deserve to hear a candidate’s platform. They deserve to hear about your vision for the office. They deserve to know how you would make your community or our state better. We must return an earnest dialogue of ideas where candidates talk to voters and listen to their problems.
#8 – Voter Suppression is Evil
Sometimes in the legislature I will be asked by reporters or constituents if my work to defeat voter suppression is simply a policy difference that can be worked out. The answer is no.
Voter suppression is an attempt by those in power to stay in power by stealing the voice of those who might take their power away. Republican leaders know certain groups of people tend to vote against them. If they pass a bill to make voting harder for that group, it is not hard to see why. They want to make sure the only people voting are people who will keep them in power. Instead of trying to convince all the voters of Montana to vote for them, they simply try to make the pool smaller.
Our right to vote is precious. It is the only way each of us has an equal voice in deciding our path forward. In every other situation in life, there are some people with a larger voice than others. In our democracy, the vote of the low-income healthcare worker is equal to that of the corporate CEO.
#9 – Vote Suppressors Must be Held Accountable
We need more pressure on those working to make voting harder. For so many other important issues, there are groups dedicated to holding people accountable when they vote against Montana values. Voting shouldn’t be complicated. When our elected officials vote to make it harder for someone to cast a ballot we need folks ready to knock doors and make calls to see someone with our values in that seat.
We need to raise money, organize, and turn out voters to ensure people are unseated whose goal is disenfranchising low income, women, native, student, rural or other vulnerable voters.
After an attempt to eliminate Election Day voter registration failed at the ballot, there were no voter suppression bills introduced or presented the following year. When we show these elected officials Montanans want an election system founded on the values of transparency, accessibility, fairness, and openness they will listen.
These values are founded on what I have heard from Montanans over the seven years I have spent serving as a legislator. These ideas have guided my work to make our democracy stronger and to invite more people to share their voice. When all Montanans are heard, we know we will have leaders who represent our state at its best – no matter how the chips fall.
I hope you will join me in this effort to make our democracy more accessible and push back on those who want to dismantle our work. Show up when pro-voting bills are introduced to lend your support. Call and write your legislators to make sure they vote against any effort to suppress the vote. Knock doors and donate to candidates who will defend and advance voting rights in 2018.
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Everyone has a role in defending our voting rights. This work is more important now than ever before.