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Lawmakers kill vote-by-mail bill, others consider 'blast' to House floor

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MISSOULA, Mont. - Montana lawmakers voted in an 11-8 vote to table Senate Bill 305 in the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

Click here to see who voted to table the bill.

SB 305 would allow Montana counties to decide if they wanted to hold an all-vote-by-mail election on the May 25 special election to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke. Supporters say the bill would save counties thousands of dollars in election fees. Opponents say the bill would reduce the accessibility of voting.

State Rep. Ellie Hill Smith (D-Missoula) introduced the bill in the executive action portion of the HJC meeting Wednesday, claiming county elections offices needed answers on the bill for planning purposes.

State Rep. Theresa Manzella (R-Hamilton) moved to table the bill at the end of the committee meeting Wednesday, because legislators had other meetings to get to. She said in a statement, "We were out of time. Period. Thus I made the substitute motion to table (the bill), which passed."

Hill Smith delivered a heated speech following the vote to table, saying Wednesday was one of the last days to get Senate bills through committee to the House floor for a final vote. She was upset the bill was tabled without prior discussion.

"In my four terms in the Montana Legislature bills of this magnitude have always the respect of the committee," Hill Smith said. "Partisan hijinks is what we don't do in this capitol. This is not how we do business. I think it's a shame we gave (up) on this bill that will literally impact every single one of our constituents."

State Rep. Bob Brown (R-Thompson Falls) fired back. "I believed this was a bill we needed to have some real discussion on. We still have some time before we have to really act on that bill and to give it the discussion it deserves and the people of Montana deserve," he said.

Bill author State Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) says the decision to table the bill is disappointing and will lead to financial hardship for counties.

"We're going to now go waste $750,000 we don't need to waste. It's going to be very hard to get polling places ready," he said. Fitzpatrick says he is worried voters will not turn out for the special election because of the election falling on a Thursday in May and several polling location changes.

But the fight may not be over.

Hill Smith vowed at the end of the meeting to "blast" the bill to the House floor.

When a bill is tabled it is essentially dead. However, if a majority of House members approve taking it out of committee, the measure can be "blasted" out of committee and onto the floor for a vote. Supporters would need 3/5 of the House members to approve a "blast."

Fitzpatrick says there is still hope for supporters. "Nothing is ever dead in the legislative process. They can always revisit a bill (or) see if they can get enough votes and pass it out of committee. That's always a possibility; I think the reality is it's probably dead. I mean, I wouldn't say its 100-percent dead, but more than likely it's dead."

Manzella says she's concerned over misdelivered mail that could compromise the election process. She says she frequently receives mail that does not belong to her and worries the same could happen during an all-vote-by-mail election. Manzella says she calculated numbers on the Secretary of State's website and found on average there is a 1-percent mail misdelivery rate in Montana -- or 6,944 registered voters.

"When it comes to our elections we simply can't risk the potential problems, no matter how much money it saves. Protecting the integrity of our voting process is a principle that cannot be compromised," she said.

She says it's anybody's guess if the bill will be brought back to committee.

There is mixed word on when the bill could be blasted to the House floor. Some legislators say it could be as early as Wednesday or as late as next week.

The bill passed the senate in a vote of 37-13.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures at least 22 states including Montana have provision that allow certain elections to be conducted entirely by mail. For those elections all registered voters receive a ballot in the mail. Of those 22 states only Washington, Oregon and Colorado hold all elections entirely by mail. California will be added to the list next year.

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