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Published January 30 2013

Election bills raise concern about voting ease in North Dakota

FARGO – The auditor of North Dakota’s most populous county says several bills in the state Legislature would make it harder to vote and administer elections.

Bills introduced by Republican lawmakers would shorten the time for early and absentee voting and more than double the number of days a person must live in a precinct before voting there.

Under another bill, voters – often college students – who must fill out an affidavit because they don’t have proof of their current address would have to provide that proof within a week of the election to have their vote counted.

Cass County Auditor Mike Montplaisir, who plans to testify on a number of the bills this week, said none of them would make the voting process easier, saying it “seems like a pattern here.”

“It makes it harder for our office, and I think it disenfranchises or makes it more difficult for the voter,” he said.

Residency requirement

Under current law, a voter must reside in a precinct for at least 30 days before the election to cast a ballot there.

House Bill 1332 would change the requirement to at least 30 days before the deadline for distributing absentee ballots – effectively at least 70 days before the election.

Rep. Randy Boehning, R-Fargo, said the bill he introduced with five other House Republicans aims to ensure that voters are residents of their precinct for at least 30 days before filling out a ballot, regardless of when they vote.

Montplaisir said he believes the change would have the greatest effect on college students.

“Because if it was 70 days before (the election), that gets you back into August,” before fall students have been able to establish 30 days of residency, he said.

Boehning said students would still be able to vote in their home states and communities if they didn’t meet the requirement.

“I mean, we’re really not taking their right to vote away. They still have the opportunity to vote back home, as well,” he said.

Less time for absentees

County auditors must have absentee ballots prepared 40 days before the election, and they can begin distributing the ballots at that time at voters’ request.

Under House Bill 1238, absentee ballots could be sent no earlier than 20 days before the election.

“That really compresses that time,” Montplaisir said, adding Cass County sends out about 10,000 absentee ballots during a busy election.

Grand Forks County Auditor Debbie Nelson said handling the same number of absentee ballots in half the time could overwhelm her office.

But Nelson said she also knows some lawmakers don’t think voters should vote too far in advance because things can change shortly before an election. Her office has had requests from voters who want to change their submitted absentee ballots but aren’t able to do so, she said.

“I can see both sides of it,” she said.

Not-so-early voting

House Bill 1400 would cut the number of early voting days from 15 to seven, which Montplaisir said “gives us no flexibility.”

Cass County currently has eight days of early voting, which Montplaisir said draws 20,000-plus voters in a presidential election year. But some smaller counties start earlier, he said.

Because of the weekend, a seven-day limit would leave only four or five business days for early voting, depending on whether a county holds early voting on the day before the election. (Cass County doesn’t.)

Senate Minority Leader Mac Schneider, D-Grand Forks, said people have taken to early voting as a convenient way to cast their ballots.

“Unfortunately, these misguided bills go in exactly the opposite direction. They do not seek to fix any known problems and will only serve to make it harder for college students, senior citizens and busy people of all ages to vote,” he said in an email. “We should be making it easier for people to participate in the democratic process, not more difficult, and the majority’s actions seem to serve a partisan purpose rather than a public one.”

Putting votes on hold

For voters who must fill out an affidavit to cast a ballot because they don’t have proof of their address, House Bill 1275 would require their ballot to be set aside in a sealed envelope.

The voter would have to return to the polling place with the necessary ID before the polls close, or bring it afterward to the appropriate election official before the canvassing board meets within six business days of the election, before the vote could be counted.

Montplaisir acknowledged the current system is “not the greatest” because officials follow up on affidavits after votes are already counted. But he said they find “very few problems” with the affidavits.

College students may have lived in their precinct for the required 30 days but don’t have an ID with their current address, he noted.

“Well, if they didn’t have an ID on Election Day, what’s the chances of them getting an ID before canvassing?” he said.

‘Shadow bill’ criticized

House Bill 1345, which Montplaisir calls the “county auditor shadow bill” and an unnecessary expense, would require local governing bodies to appoint someone “to be responsible for safeguarding undistributed ballots, returned absentee and mail ballots, and all other completed ballots.”

Montplaisir said that would be impractical in Cass County, where eight people handle ballots in his office on election days.

“I think the important thing is if you don’t trust the integrity and the professionalism of your county auditor and their staff, then you’ve got a problem. You need to do something about that problem,” he said. “What you don’t need to do is require every county and every city in the state to pay for another individual to watch over them.”

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528