The Republican-controlled Gallatin County Commission and Gallatin County Clerk & Recorder Charlotte Mills again told local voting rights groups and citizens Tuesday that they had no plans to make changes or accommodations to Hope Lutheran Church as Montana State’s nearest polling place. Forward Montana and a coalition of non-profit groups and citizens had previously asked for the Gallatin County Commission to consider reversing its decision during the 2012 redistricting to remove a polling place from the MSU campus or provide some funding to help shuttle students to the church polling place on Election Day. Commissioners have adamantly denied their requests and insisted doing so would provide special treatment to students over other Gallatin County residents.
Forward Montana and ASMSU State Legislature Director Garrett Lankford, a senior in political science, have maintained that the new polling place location at Hope Lutheran church puts MSU students in more danger. They continued explaining that students are seriously inconvenience since they must now travel over two miles along roads with no shoulders traveled by vehicles traveling 60 miles per hour or faster, sometimes in the dark and cold of winter. Students were able to vote at Bobcat Stadium before the 2014 election. Mills and the County discontinued voting there in order to consolidate precincts, save county money, respond to trends in mail voting and because of Internet and power connectivity problems at the stadium in the past.
Most recently, Mills and County commissioners have proposed moving an additional two precincts to the Hope Lutheran Church from the Gallatin County Fairgrounds to accommodate renovations at the Fairgrounds.
Kiah Abbey, Forward Montana’s Bozeman director says this will only work to disenfranchise more students from the election process, since more students who could previously use the Streamline bus service to ride directly from campus to the Fairgrounds will now have to find a way to travel at night to Hope Lutheran Church to vote on Election Day. Abbey questioned the move by the commission, saying: “Why does it have to be so reactive? Why can’t we be more proactive when it comes to the safety of our bike and pedestrian traffic?” Abbey further stated she thinks that it is the responsibility of the commission to not only make sure our elections just and fair, but safe, friendly and accessible to help encourage voter turnout.
Lankford echoed the sentiment and said he will most likely approach the ASMSU Senate with a resolution to garner support in hopes of changing the commission’s views. With so many students relying on walking, biking and the Streamline to get around town, he said that the commission’s stand-offish attitude and lack of receptiveness to improving access for students was a dereliction of duty to those who are most vulnerable to being excluded from the democratic process.
Lankford and Marianne Brough, director of operations for ASMSU, also pointed to thousands in student fee funding of the Streamline bus, which they say shows students are helping shoulder the cost for the rest of the county’s citizens to utilize public transportation. While students, organizations like HRDC and the city all contribute to the Streamline bus system, the county puts in nothing, and according to Lankford and Brough, should contribute to populations it receives financial benefits from.
Both Abbey and Lankford said they have acted in good faith for months in trying to quell commission concerns. While some conservatives believe that the organizations are primarily trying to increase voter turnout for Democrats, Abbey pointed to several other initiatives Forward Montana and Lankford have helped organize, like a City Commission candidate forum scheduled for October 14th and voter guides distributed to students. “We’ve definitely acted in good faith in dealing with the commission’s concerns,” Abbey said.
Lankford asserted that the county has not been doing the same, pointing to the short notice commissioners provided he and Abbey for the commission’s latest meeting in which the issue was again brought up. According to Lankford, local political party officials were given almost a month’s notice of the commission taking up the matter, while notices in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and to he and Abbey, who have been involved in the process for months, were done just days before, making it difficult to get possible supporters to give feedback.
Ultimately, the county still has time to change its mind, although commissioners seem to have made clear at this point they have no intention of doing so. Abbey says the polling location can be changed between now and next May, and hopes to continue to educate students and build enough support to sway the commission by growing the coalition of organizations and people asking the county to find some way to alleviate concerns and possible dangers associated with travel to the church.