Candidate’s Death Prompts Last-Minute Montana Ballot Scramble


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Today is the day that election offices across the nation are supposed to send ballots to military and overseas voters around the world. But in Montana, a candidate’s tragic death – and uncertainty about his replacement – is making that a challenge. The Associated Press has more:

Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch on Thursday accepted a replacement for U.S. House candidate Mike Fellows, who died in a car crash earlier this week, after a Libertarian Party internal dispute briefly threatened to delay county election officials from printing new ballots.

Rick Breckenridge of Proctor filed his paperwork with McCulloch’s office on Thursday morning after the Ravalli County Libertarian Central Committee chose him to replace Mike Fellows in the U.S. House race. Fellows, the longtime state chairman of the Libertarian Party, died Monday night in a head-on collision after a campaign event in Seeley Lake.

But a power struggle emerged within the party over Fellows’ successor as the head of the party who could properly name a replacement candidate, and McCulloch said Breckenridge’s filing could not be accepted until the dispute was settled …

Late Thursday afternoon, McCulloch spokeswoman Emily Dean said the issue of the replacement candidate had been resolved.

The late change in ballots is presenting election officials with the task of essentially re-doing ballots for thousands of voters:

Fellows’ death and the uncertainty over his replacement creates a new headache for Montana’s county election administrators, who must print corrected ballots with Breckenridge’s name on them. That means the counties will likely miss a Friday deadline to mail ballots to military and overseas voters.

The Secretary of State’s office is recommending that counties reprint their ballots in their entirety to ensure the accuracy of the election, out of fairness to the candidates and because it is the option that will provide the least disruption to Montana voters, according to a memo to county election officials.

Missing Friday’s deadline to get ballots to overseas voters may extend the time frame that those voters have to return the ballots, the memo said…

[Cascade County election administrator Rina] Moore said officials in her office are unstuffing approximately 25,000 absentee ballots that had already been placed in envelopes. She estimated it will take about three days to re-print the corrected ballots once she gets the green light from the secretary of state’s office.

“I will have our printers run around the clock,” she said.

Note that this is a statewide issue given that Montana has only one single at-large Congressional seat – and in Rivalli County the switch will come at a significant cost in time and effort, according to KPAX-TV8:

In Ravalli County, officials are faced with re-printing up to 40,000 ballots ahead of the absentee ballot deadline in early October. This comes with an extra cost to the county, an estimated $15,000 … 

Any incorrect ballots that have already been printed must be shredded immediately. If that is not possible they must be stored securely and in a way that they are not confused with corrected ballots.

This story is an excellent example of how circumstances beyond an election official’s control – a fatal accident, partisan infighting and a firm legal deadline – can conspire to create a sudden hurdle with less than seven weeks to Election Day. Mind you, it’s merely a difficulty – the only tragedy in this case is the one suffered by Mr. Fellows’ family – but it’s one that every election official hopes never to have to face. Good luck to Montana county election officials who will be working overtime this weekend on behalf of their voters across the state and around the world.

Stay tuned …

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