Montana

Liberal Groups, Gallatin GOP Spar over Voting Changes for MSU Students

Policy
Hope Lutheran Church near the Montana State University campus in Bozeman (photo: Interior Environments Incorporated)

Liberal non-profit groups and Republican elected officials from the County Commission and Clerk & Recorder’s office met last week to address issues the non-profits believe negatively affect and depress voter turnout among Montana State University students in Bozeman.

In 2012, Bozeman consolidated and eliminated precincts and polling locations in order to save money and to acknowledge the growing trend of voters using mail-in absentee ballots.  Voters in precinct 63B, which includes most of the dormitories on campus, must make a round trip of around 4 miles to Hope Lutheran Church in order to vote in person on Election Day.  Before the redistricting, Bobcat Stadium on campus was previously used as a polling place.

“The church is not accessible by public transportation, and definitely not a road that is accessible for students without a vehicle,” Forward Montana Bozeman director Kiah Abbey told Media Trackers in an interview.

Abbey characterized problems with the Elections office in terms of “customer service,” and said that the county was not doing it’s best to provide for the “best experience possible for all voters.”  Abbey said that voters in Gallatin County faced much longer wait times to register to vote on Election Day and faced hardships by having their polling place moved 2 miles away from campus to Hope Lutheran Church when many do not own vehicles.

In addition to Gallatin County’s 3 Republican County Commissioners, the League of Women Voters, Montana Conservation Voters, disability rights advocates, interested citizens and Gallatin County Recording Supervisor Eric Semerad also attended the meeting.

Abbey said that people who wish to travel by bike or foot in November, sometimes in the dark, would be facing a significant amount of danger on 19th Avenue with no sidewalks or shoulder. Forward Montana and local Democrats have often used their own funds to bus voters from campus to the polling location.

Republican Commissioners disagreed with how the situation was being framed by Forward Montana, saying that other voters in Gallatin County faced similar or greater hardship in reaching polling locations.

In an interview with Media Trackers, Charlotte Mills, Gallatin County Clerk & Recorder, said that voters in the more rural parts of the county had to drive up to 30 miles to reach their polling locations, and that it wouldn’t be fair to make special considerations for students that aren’t afforded other county residents.

Abbey also provided numbers comparing the budgets and staffing between Missoula County and Gallatin County to illustrate differences student voters in at University of Montana – Missoula and Montana State University – Bozeman might encounter when voting.  Forward Montana’s comparisons show that Missoula has more staff and more budget from their local governments to administer their elections.

Mills told Media Trackers she believe Forward Montana’s numbers to be somewhat exaggerated and not fit for apples to apples comparisons.

“What should be understood is Forward Montana is comparing Missoula, a very liberal city with all Democrat officials to Gallatin County, which has all Republican County Commissioners and mostly Republican County officials,” said Mills.

Mills rejected Abbey’s claim that the polling places are not accessible, noting that the county Elections office itself is just blocks away from a bus stop and voters can come in at any time during the 30 days prior to Election Day to cast their ballots.

Mills also said that structural differences in infrastructure between Missoula and Bozeman limited where they could put polling locations.

“The Secretary of State requires us to have secure, encrypted connections to protect their database,” said Mills.

Mills said these requirements mean it would be a significantly larger cost for the county to set up more polling locations, and taxpayers should not pay more to help one segment of voters over any other.

Mills also told Media Trackers she believes that voter registration efforts by Forward Montana may be part of the reason they believe voter turnout is depressed among college students.

“Some of these students get registered and then move away a week later and we never hear from them again,” Mills said.

Precinct 63B, the one in question on campus, has only 39 percent of its voters classified as active by the Secretary of State, one of the lowest in the state.  While it’s not uncommon for the state’s precincts which include the colleges to include much higher numbers of inactive voters, Mills believe this accounts for the lower turnout numbers, not the accessibility of the polling location.  According to numbers provided by Mills, of the active voters who did vote in 2014, 80 percent of them did so with mail ballots.

While absentee, mail-in voting has steadily increased and now represents a majority of voters in the state, Abbey stated this was not necessarily a viable option for students, rural voters and minorities in Montana.

“College students often change addresses several times a year, and many rural voters have to travel a significant distance to get to their post office box locations,” Abbey said.  “We do encourage absentee voting so voters can have more time to research candidates, but more options should exist including more accessible polling locations and online voter registration.”

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