Can kids cast their parents' votes?

By: 
Deb Hill
News-Argus Managing Editor

The June 7 primary was Ron Oates’ first time to serve as an elections judge for Fergus County, but, he said, may also be his last. The Buffalo resident is at odds with elections officials at the county and state level regarding whether a parent may allow a child to vote for them.

Oates took the training offered by Fergus County for elections judges and on Primary Election day he was assigned to a precinct voting in the Trade Center.

Most of the day went well, until Oates observed a voter entering the polls with a child of around 12 years of age. Oates believed he saw the child voting for the adult.

“We were taught that it’s illegal for more than one person to be in a voting booth,” Oates told the News-Argus, recalling what worried him at the time. “A voter has to be registered, over 18 and a U.S. citizen, that’s what we were trained.”

Concerned, Oates approached the polling place manager.

“I was told not to worry about it, that it didn’t mean anything,” Oates recalled. He disagreed, and was eventually asked to leave the polling place.

“I was in the [military] service. I took an oath to defend the Constitution so people could vote, but if the voting laws don’t matter, then what was I defending?” Oates wondered.

According to Fergus County Elections Administrator Rana Wichman, the situation came down to what would be most disruptive to other voters: stopping a parent or guardian from allowing a child to be in the voting booth with them, or allowing the situation to continue.

“I was called by the polling place manager, and I came down to listen to Mr. Oates’ concerns,” Wichman told the News-Argus. “It’s true elections law says there should only be one person in the voting booth, but in this case, it was a father and his child, not an unrelated person.”

“I contacted the Secretary of State’s office, as they are the ultimate arbitrator for Montana elections, and I was told that elections judges should not be involved in this kind of situation,” Wichman said. “If a voter does not want someone in the booth with them, then an elections judge can act.”

Oates said he felt since the training emphasized that elections law only allows for one person to be in a voting booth, and that even people with very young children are supposed to find a way to vote while leaving their baby outside the booth, his concerns were valid.

Wichman said she felt Oates was being disruptive as he continued to argue his point, so she asked him to leave.

“It goes back to what elections judges are supposed to do. They are there to help with provisional ballots or help if someone forgets their identification,” Wichman said. “By the time I was called and arrived, the ballot was already in the box, so even if we had wanted to make the voter re-mark it, it was too late.”

Wichman said she felt Oates was technically correct about the law, but had not handled the situation well.

 

Kids in voting booths violation of law

Chapter 13 of the Montana Code Annotated defines the use of voting stations. In addition to requiring that voting booths be arranged so that no one can see how a voter votes, the law states, “…No more than one individual may occupy a voting station at one time, except when assistance is furnished to an elector as provided by law.”

According to Emily Dean, communications director for the Secretary of State’s office, their staff advises people not to take their children into the polling booth, but over the years, in the few times the situation has arisen, they have found it to be more disruptive to remove the child than to let the situation go.

“Normally we don’t get complaints like this,” Dean told the News-Argus. “If parents call ahead, we advise them not to bring their children, but we don’t get many calls about it. No one here [the Secretary of State’s office] can recall the last time we had such a complaint.”

Dean explained that anyone who believes there has been a violation of elections law should go to the website for the Fair Elections Center and fill out a Potential Elections Law Violation Report.

“The form goes to our legal department,” Dean said. “They will see whether the Secretary of State’s office has jurisdiction. If so, they will take action. If not, they will refer it to the county attorney. It all depends on what the violation is.”

The form to file a violation report is available online at 222.montanafairelections.com/Report/index.asp, or a person can call (406) 444-4239.

Oates was unsure whether he would take his concern to the next level, but he said he believes the law should be the law.

“If this one incident is swept under the rug, then how do we know what is going on at any of our elections,” he asked.

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