- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A legislative referendum to end Election-Day voter registration can go on the November ballot, but changes must be made to its wording so as not to confuse voters, the Montana Supreme Court ruled Wednesday.

Montana has allowed voters to register or change their registrations on Election Day since 2005. Legislative Referendum 126, approved by the 2013 Legislature for this November’s ballot, would change the deadline to register to the Friday before an election.

Seven unions and interest groups filed a petition with the Supreme Court to remove the referendum from the ballot. They objected to part of the measure’s title that says it is “ensuring compliance with the National Voter Registration Act.”

The plaintiffs argued that reference wrongly suggests that ending same-day voter registration is required by federal law in an attempt to deceive voters to approve it.

The court said in its 5-1 ruling that it is “reluctant to take the extraordinary step of nullifying (the referendum’s) placement on the ballot” but Montana already is in compliance with the federal law and the measure’s title “may lead to confusion in the voting booth.”

The court ordered Attorney General Tim Fox to revise the statement to clarify that compliance with federal law does not require eliminating same-day voter registration.

Justice Michael Wheat was the lone dissenter. He said he would have struck the referendum from the ballot because the reference to the federal law is a “fatal defect” the Legislature knew about before the measure was approved.

Fox spokesman John Barnes said the attorney general’s office has five days from Thursday to submit a revised ballot measure.

“Attorney General Fox appreciates that the state Supreme Court has honored Montana voters’ constitutional right to engage in direct democracy through the referendum process by allowing LR-126 to remain on the ballot,” Barnes said.

Eric Feaver, the president of the teachers’ union MEA-MFT, said the plaintiffs will scrutinize the revisions and will challenge them if necessary.

He called the Legislature’s original wording a “plainly fraudulent” gambit to approve a voter-suppression law.

Opponents of the measure say the referendum targets minorities, students, military personnel, women and elderly voters, many of whom would typically vote Democratic in an election.

“They’re not going to write a ballot question, ‘Do you want to suppress votes?’ They’re going to write the ballot question, ‘Do you want to comply with the National Voter Registration Act?’” Feaver said.

The GOP has said requiring Montana voters to the register early would lead them to be more responsible and decrease long lines at polls caused by same-day registration.

By approving the referendum, the Republican-led Legislature avoided a potential veto from Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock to bring the issue straight to the voters. That and another referendum to allow the top two vote-getters in a primary election to advance - regardless of political party - led to protests by Democratic lawmakers.