by Bobby Caina Calvan, Associated Press
HELENA — The Montana Vehicle Division has revamped many of its forms to help make it easier to register to vote, amid pressure from voter rights groups who said the state was not doing enough to comply with the national Motor Voter law.
Without fanfare, the division rolled out the new forms earlier this month. It was hailed by advocates as an important step in boosting voter registration rolls — now about 637,000 in Montana — especially among the poor and young.
Now, anyone eligible to vote can register using the same form to apply for a driver’s license — without filling out a separate document, as was previously required.
The Montana Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the state’s food stamp program, is also working to address issues raised by the groups.
State officials are scheduled to meet with representatives from Project Vote, a Washington-based advocacy group that joined several Montana organizations to push for changes.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Montana’s chief election officer, has no authority over other state agencies but has been acting as a mediator to help the government better comply with the National Voter Registration Act, also known as the Motor Voter law.
“This is an important federal law that requires the government to help those receiving public assistance or those obtaining a driver’s license to register to vote,” McCulloch said. “I am adamant that we fully enforce this law, which is why we are working with other state agencies and Project Vote to strengthen Montanans’ access to register to vote through these services.”
Voter rights advocates have been pushing states to enact a seamless process to register citizens to vote.
Like many states, Montana residents applying for driver’s licenses or public assistance could use that opportunity to register to vote. But until recently the registration process required additional steps, including filling out a separate form to register to vote.
“Project Vote raised these concerns and we promptly looked at their concerns,” said John Barnes, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, which oversees the state’s vehicle division. “We made minor adjustments to existing forms, and we’ve addressed the issues they’ve brought forward.”
Unlike Oregon and California, which last year became the first two states to automatically register voters, Montana still requires people to “opt in” to register to vote.
The new forms ask driver’s license applicants for the usual information, but they now ask whether a person wants to register to vote or opt out. If they decide to register, applicants must affirm their eligibility to vote — such as their citizenship, age and state residency — and sign the document.
The Motor Vehicle Division will forward the information electronically to the appropriate county elections office. In addition, the motor vehicle agency will forward address changes to help keep voter registration rolls current.
Between 2012 and 2014, nearly 27,000 Montanans registered to vote through the motor vehicle offices, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.