Republican House Speaker Austin Knudsen is using his parliamentary power to kill a measure allowing counties to hold an all-mail ballot in Montana’s May 25 special congressional election.
Knudsen has refused to schedule a floor vote on House Bill 83, which Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock sent back to the House on April 7, with amendments giving counties the option to conduct an all-mail ballot.
Without a floor vote, the bill is dead – unless at least 60 House members vote to overrule Knudsen’s decision, which is unlikely.
In a statement Tuesday, Bullock said Knudsen is “playing procedural games to prevent this (bill) from reaching the House floor.”
“All he’s accomplishing is spending more taxpayer money to get fewer people to vote,” the governor told MTN News.
A spokeswoman for Knudsen said Tuesday the House has already “vetted” the all-mail ballot proposal and rejected it, calling it “bad policy.”
The 2017 Legislature, entering its final week or so, has plenty of other work to finish and doesn’t need another vote on the mail ballot proposal, she said.
Knudsen’s refusal to send the bill to the House floor appears to be the final chapter of the contentious proposal, which had the support of most county election officials in Montana but fell victim to a mostly partisan split at the Legislature.
County election officials said allowing them to use all-mail ballots for the May 25 election would save them as much as $750,000, because they wouldn’t have to hire election judges and set up polling places for the unusual Thursday event.
Senate Bill 305, to allow use of mail ballots, passed the Senate in late February, but Montana Republican Party Chairman Jeff Essmann then publicly denounced the bill, saying it could help increase voter turnout and advantage the Democratic candidate in the election.
The May 25 election pits Democrat Rob Quist against Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Mark Wicks for Montana’s open congressional seat, which was vacated by Republican Ryan Zinke on March 1 when he was confirmed as U.S. Interior secretary.
Knudsen then sent the bill to the House Judiciary Committee – a move seen by most as an effort to kill the bill – and the panel voted along party lines on March 29 to table it, with Republicans for the motion.
Supporters tried to bring the bill to the floor, but could muster only 51 votes. A super-majority of at least 60 of the 100 House members is needed to remove a bill from committee.
Yet Bullock tried a parliamentary move of his own to revive the mail-ballot proposal, using an amendatory veto on April 7 to stuff SB305 into another measure – House Bill 83, an election cleanup bill sponsored by Democratic Rep. Bryce Bennett of Missoula.
That move sent the bill back to the full House for a vote, where a simple majority could advance it.
But Knudsen, as House speaker, decides when and whether to schedule such a vote. The full House can override his decision not to schedule a vote, but that would take another 60-vote super-majority.