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MT Voting-Access Bills Create Barriers for People with Disabilities

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More than a quarter of Montana adults have at least one disability. (rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock)
More than a quarter of Montana adults have at least one disability. (rawpixel.com/Adobe Stock)
 By Eric Tegethoff - Producer, Contact
April 8, 2021

HELENA, Mont. -- Advocates said some bills in Montana will make it harder for people with disabilities to vote.

Election integrity and security have been top priorities for Montana lawmakers this session.

House Bill 176 ends voter registration on the day of elections. It passed both chambers last week.

Beth Brenneman, staff attorney for Disability Rights Montana, said it presents a major hurdle to people with difficult health concerns.

"Voting is not the primary concern," Brenneman asserted. "They very much believe in voting, but their health care has to come first, and so having that last day to be able to register and vote is really critical when somebody has been dealing with complicated health issues."

House Bill 176 moves the deadline for late voter registration to the Monday before an election. Supporters say it will decrease the workload for officials on election day.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a quarter of Montana adults have at least one disability.

Another bill that could hinder voting access is House Bill 406, which would curtail ballot-collection services.

Disability Rights Montana staff often act as agents for people who aren't able to drop off their ballots and Brenneman cautioned it's unclear if the group still could do this under the bill.

Brenneman gave an example of how the bill would make it harder for a man they helped in the last election who is a multiple amputee, who has difficulty writing and getting out of his apartment.

"It wouldn't have allowed us to deliver that ballot to the election office after we helped him fill it out," Brenneman explained. "And he has the right to vote. So, I mean, those sorts of thing happen all the time."

A Montana judge struck down a similar law in the lead-up to the 2020 election.

But Brenneman noted there have been some victories. The governor signed Senate Bill 15 into law last month, ensuring funding for voter-accessibility machines. There is also House Bill 643, which allows electronic submission of ballots.

Brenneman said voters with disabilities can fill out their ballots electronically, but it requires a printer to submit them.

"They could choose to return it electronically," Brenneman remarked. "Which makes a whole lot more sense, frankly, and would make it just like the military voters' federal law."

Support for this reporting was provided by The Carnegie Corporation of New York.

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