Montana State Senator Dee Brown discusses CAC Legislation

On May 1, 2019, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed Senate Bill 124 into law.  The bill allows military and overseas citizens with a Common Access Card, or CAC, to digitally sign their Federal Post Card Application for voter registration, to request an absentee ballot, or return a voted ballot.  A CAC is only issued after a thorough vetting by the U.S. Department of Defense and is only issued to members of the armed services, civilian employees of the DOD and DOD contractors.

“Due to [Montana’s] shortened legislative session, a lot of heavy lifting and ideas for bills begin in an interim session,” said Montana state Sen. Dee Brown, the bill’s sponsor. “I have served on and chaired the interim State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Committee. We look at topics that we are interested in and talk about legislation coming forward from the interim committee. I thought that the topic of voting accessibility for military and overseas voters was one that felt especially important.”

SB 124 began to take shape in 2018 during one of those interim sessions. Bill drafter and research analyst Sheri Scurr went to work drafting legislation that would meet Brown’s goal of making it easier for military and overseas voters to vote and would also pass the legislative scrutiny that election legislation receives. Scurr reached out to the CSG Overseas Voting Initiative, or OVI, a collaboration with the DOD Federal Voting Assistance Program, to see if they could help bring Brown’s goals to life.

“Other than the guidance CSG provided, neither Montana nor many other states had any history with this kind of bill,” said Brown.

One state that did have experience passing a similar bill was Nevada. In 2013, Nevada passed Assembly Bill 175, allowing for digital signatures for military and overseas voters on voter registration documents as well as voted ballots. OVI reached out to Nevada’s Help America Vote Act, or HAVA, Administrator Justus Wendland, who serves as a member of OVI’s Working Group, to assist Montana. He connected with the Montana team and provided his insight into the implementation of digital signatures. Prior to his work in Nevada, Wendland was a HAVA specialist for Montana, making him uniquely qualified to speak to some of the issues Montana may face.

CSG OVI team members provided information about the costs of implementing a program in Montana similar to Nevada’s program. CACs are a part of an open-source technology through the DOD. The program required to validate the digital signature is a publicly available certificate-based protocol, meaning there would be minimal costs to Montana, which already provides for electronic ballot return for overseas citizens.

“We have 56 counties in Montana, which means 56 elections departments, so there was a lot of initial concern about cost,” said Brown. “Once CSG helped us understand that it was a free downloadable program and was not going to cost anything, it sailed through quite easily.”

Brown felt that testimony from Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn of the Montana National Guard was also a helpful piece of the puzzle to ensure passage of the bill.

“He came in and showed the Appropriations Committee his Common Access Card and his electronic signature,” said Brown. “As a former elementary school teacher, I feel that type of show-and-tell is vital for people who don’t know about the card. You can talk about it all you want, but until you see it firsthand, many people don’t get it. Maj. Gen. Quinn’s presentation, plus the information CSG provided, meant that the bill came out of appropriations unanimously, which was a big plus in a tight budget year.”

Brown believes it is important for everyone to understand the inherent security in the CAC.

“You can't go down to the post office, fill out a form, and get a CAC. That isn’t how it operates,” she said.

Brown said that this type of legislation is a great way for legislators to help members of the military.

“Legislators really love veterans, and those serving overseas to protect our freedoms,” she said. “This is just one way to make their lives easier, especially in war zones and places where scanners and fax machines aren’t easily accessed. This is the least we can do to make it easier to vote for those who are in stressful situations, serving away from home and defending our right to vote.”