Data analyst says 59 people in Montana tried to vote in 2021 but were turned down

(Daily Montanan) A database analyst hired by Montana’s largest labor union testified Wednesday that in the municipal elections held in 2021, she identified 59 voters who attempted to register to vote between noon the day before the election. election and Election Day, but apparently couldn’t vote because of a law passed by the 2021 legislature.

That law, House Bill 176, which eliminated Election Day registration, and two other laws are on trial as a group of plaintiffs, including Western Native Voice, the Blackfeet Nation and the American Civil Liberties Union, claim that the bills violate the Montana Constitution and disproportionately target Native Americans living on reservations throughout the state.

Kendra Miller of Bozeman testified that as a database analyst for the Montana Federation of Public Employees, she was called upon to analyze the effects of House Bill 176 since its implementation. The 2021 legislature pushed voter registration back to the day before the election, effectively shortening the “late registration” period by 36 hours. Miller is also a household name because she serves on the state’s five-person redistricting commission as one of the Democratic-appointed representatives on the panel.

Using publicly available databases on the Secretary of State’s website and using the MFPE data request to employees in Montana’s 56 counties, Miller determined that 268 residents attempted to enroll in the course. the 36-hour period modified by HB 176.

“There was more than that that I don’t have identification for because office workers said people came for the paperwork, or asked for information, or left without completing the paperwork,” said Miller.

Of that number, about 80% of those people arrived on Election Day, Miller told the court. From there, she drilled down into the data and it revealed that not everyone who registered during that short window had a municipal election in which they were eligible to vote.

After compiling and analyzing the data, Miller determined that at least 59 people from 10 different counties tried to register and could have voted in November 2021, but were denied a ballot. Miller said the number could be higher because three counties did not respond to the request.

Miller also found that two counties, including Ravalli County, had citizens registered after the noon deadline but were still processed.

“One county was doing one thing and not the other,” Miller said.

More than 200,000 votes were cast in 2021, generally considered a “non-election” year, as only municipal or school board elections normally take place.

Miller analyzed the 59 voters and determined that 35 of the voters were new to Montana, 16 were voters moving from other Montana counties, and the remaining eight were registered in the same county but needed to change precincts.

However, attorney Lars Phillips, who is part of Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s legal team, asked Miller if those 59 voters might have been denied a ballot for other reasons.

“You presented a theory that those 59 voters couldn’t vote,” Phillips said.

“It’s not a theory,” Miller replied, “it’s a conclusion.”

“Somebody could get the data and do the research and not come to the same conclusion. Do you agree that’s possible,” Phillips asked.

“I could be wrong if there’s new information the county has that I didn’t know about, but using the information from the public data request, and based on that information, it’s at least 59 voters who could have voted,” she replied. .

Phillips asked if it was possible that those 59 people could have been ineligible for other reasons, including residency requirements.

Another voter refused

Before Miller spoke, Bozeman resident Sarah Anne Denson said she was turned away at the Gallatin County Elections Office on Election Day 2021 when she tried to change her registration and vote in the election. municipal. She was one of 59 people included in Miller’s research, along with Thomas Bogle, also of Gallatin County, who testified Tuesday at the trial in Yellowstone County District Court.

Denson described being a student at Montana State University who moved several times and was originally from Miles City. When the 2021 ballot didn’t catch up with her, she went with a friend to the Bozeman election office on Election Day 2021 to be denied a ballot because the registration period was over, in accordance with HB 176.

“I was especially excited because a friend of mine that I grew up with was running for city commissioner and he had campaigned for affordable housing and to be more housing friendly,” Denson said. “He’s also the first person I’ve seen my age run for public office.”

Jacobsen’s attorneys pointed out that she could have voted in Custer County (Miles City), but she said she had work to do and couldn’t make time to drive the six hours each way.

The Gallatin County office clerk confirmed she could not vote due to the new law, Denson said, and was not given the opportunity to vote on a provisional ballot.

“I felt quite bummed and let down, and in the end when my friend didn’t win the election, I felt like I should have supported him and watched my roommate register and vote l previous year,” Denson said.

Confusion and electoral fraud

Kiersten Iwai, executive director of the Forward Montana Foundation, which has a mission to register young voters and engage them in the democratic process, told the courtroom that these new laws have confused young voters. , and that many are confused about acceptable identification.

“These layers inhibit a person’s ability to vote,” Iwai said.

Jacobsen’s attorneys pushed back, pointing to ways a voter can register without having photo identification, such as having the last four digits of a Social Security number.

They also asked him questions about whether the foundation supports secure elections and measures to protect the system from voter fraud.

“I don’t understand how these new laws would prevent fraud that doesn’t exist,” Iwai said.

Northern Cheyenne Tribal Council member Lane Spotted Elk told the court that the tribal government believes more Native Americans use ballot collectors or Election Day registration than their non-Native counterparts. He said new rules, including HB530, which prohibits collectors from receiving “monetary benefits”, are making executives reluctant to act for fear of violating the new law.

“We think we would (get out of voting business), but we’re not sure of the state’s interpretation,” Spotted Elk said. “Northern Cheyenne believe in advocating for access to the vote and strongly believe that any effort to suppress the Native vote is not conducive to the Cheyenne way of life. This may not have been the intention of the legislature, but it did. They deleted it.

Sean N. Ayres