Partisan differences on election policy spur ruckus in Senate

Debate over a pair of referendums aimed at changing Montana’s election laws — including one that would eliminate an election-day voter registration option utilized by many students — turned bitter at the state Legislature Friday, April 5. Senate Democrats, spurred in part by a disagreement over the body’s operating procedure, pounded their desks in protest as Republicans acted to put both controversial measures on the 2014 ballot.

If approved by Montana voters, SB 405 would end voter registration the Friday before Election Day and SB 408 would change the state’s election system so that only two candidates would be on the ballot for each office in the general election. Instead of the current system where each political party holds a separate primary and advances a candidate to the general election, the state would hold a general primary with the top two vote-getters moving on, regardless of their party.

In practice, SB 408 would have the effect of limiting the “spoiler effect” sometimes played by third-party candidates — an advantage for Republicans, given the Libertarian Party’s prominence in Montana. Last fall, for instance, Democratic Sen. Jon Tester was re-elected by a 3.5 percent margin in a tight race against Rep. Denny Rehberg, a Republican, while Libertarian candidate Dan Cox carried 6.5 percent of the vote.

Eliminating election-day voter registration would also be a political boon for Republicans, given that voter demographics who are more likely to register late, like students, tend to lean Democratic. However, Republicans have advocated repealing the election-day registration, first made law in 2005, on the grounds that it would ease election officials’ workloads and help address long lines on Election Day. Democrats, for their part, have fiercely defended the law as essential to protecting Montanans’ right to vote, particularly for marginalized groups.

On Friday, Senate Democrats had intended to prevent the measures from meeting a deadline for inclusion on the 2014 ballot through a rarely used procedural maneuver that would have halted Senate business over the absence of Sen. Shannon Augare, a Democrat from Browning who had returned home that afternoon for unclear reasons. However, Senate President Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, refused to acknowledge Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, when he rose to call the procedure, prompting Democrats’ outburst as the Senate moved on with votes over the referendums.

Democrats have called Essmann’s actions unconstitutional and threatened legal action seeking to nullify the votes, which they refused to participate in. The Republican-controlled Senate Rules Committee found Essmann guilty of no wrongdoing on a party-line vote Monday, and a Wednesday letter co-signed by Essmann and Senate Minority Leader Jon Sesso admitted that the disturbance was “unbecoming of the dignity of the Senate.”

While some commentators have speculated that the fracas could impact the coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans that has supported, among other initiatives, a plan to freeze university tuition, MSU Lobbyist Tracy Ellig said Monday he did not think that would be the case. “It was over an issue unrelated to university funding,” he said. “I don’t see a connection between the two.”