Montana GOP House Speaker Rejects Bill in Order to Hinder Democratic Voting

A proposed bill to allow mail-in ballots for the state's special election would have saved the state about $750,000 — a small price to keep Democrats from casting a vote.


Montana House Speaker Austin Knudsen (R) has essentially killed a bill that would have saved the state $750,000, a move Democrats have suggested equates to voter suppression.

Knudsen has refused to schedule a hearing regarding House Bill 83, which was sent back to the legislature by Gov. Steve Bullock (D-Mont.) with an amendment that would have given counties the option to use mail-in ballots for the state's upcoming special election.

HB 83 will not come to a vote unless 60 House members vote to override Knudsen's decision, a very unlikely event.

Rep. Bryce Bennett (D-Missoula), who asked Knudsen earlier this week to call a vote for the bill, amounted the efforts to "Republican voter suppression."

"Despite calls and emails from hundreds of Montanans and appeals from nearly every county election administrator the Republican leadership won't even let us have a debate," Bennett said. "Unfortunately the Republican voter suppression agenda continues on."

Gov. Bullock said Knudsen is "playing procedural games."

"All he's accomplishing is spending more taxpayer money to get fewer people to vote," he said to MTN News.

Incidentally a Republican, State Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, was the one who originally introduced a bill regarding mail-in ballots. He called it "the fiscally responsible" thing to do.

At the time, Montana's Republican Chairman Jeff Essmann sent fellow Republican Party members an "Emergency Chairman's Report on the Long term negative impact on the Montana Republican Party and Republican candidates due to Mail Ballot Elections."

"All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door," Essmann wrote.

"I know that my position will not be popular with many fiscally conservative Republican County Commissioners or the sponsor of House Bill 305," he said, referring to the original bill. "They may be well intended, but this bill could be the death of our effort to make Montana a reliably Republican state."

Republicans did not explicitly address Essmann's letter at a vote on Fitzgerald's bill but instead raised concerns regarding voter fraud.

Fitzgerald pointed out at the time that mail-in ballots benefit the whole state, regardless of political party — and may have in fact helped Republicans.

"Close to 65 percent of people in the last election voted by mail, and Republicans never did better," Fitzgerald said.

He also quelled any concerns regarding voter fraud, which widely considered a myth intended to suppress minority and elderly voters.

The bill passed in the Senate but was tabled by House Republicans without discussion.

The upcoming special election in Montana will determine who will replace former Republican State Rep. Ryan Zinke, who has been tapped by President Donald Trump to head the Department of the Interior.

Voter Fraud

Just as in other states that have had issues pertaining to voter suppression, Montana Republicans expressed concerns over voter fraud as a reason to kill the mail-in ballot bill.

"Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth," published last year by the Brennan Center for Justice, cites previous research that has repeatedly disproved the fears related to voter fraud, concluding that it amounts only to severely hindering minorities from voting. According to the publication, incidents of voter fraud are most often the result of "clerical errors or bad data matching practices" and in fact only occur at rates between 0.00004 and 0.00009 percent.

"As historians and election experts have catalogued, there is a long history in this country of racially suppressive voting measures — including poll taxes and all-white primaries — put in place under the guise of stopping voter fraud that wasn't actually occurring in the first place," the text states. "The surest way toward voting that is truly free, fair, and accessible is to know the facts in the face of such rhetoric."

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