Dispute Over Montana All-Mail Election Raises Partisan, Cost Concerns

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Very soon, Montana is is expecting a special election to replace its lone member of the House of Representatives, but the plans to do so using an all-mail election are generating a strong objection from a Republican leader – despite the fact that a fellow Republican is pushing the idea (with support from election officials) as a way to save taxpayers money. The Great Falls Tribune has more:

The head of the state Republican Party has come out against a mail ballot bill for a special election to replace a seat expected to vacated by Montana’s lone congressman, saying they give Democrats an inherent advantage.

His comments prompted a strong response from some election and county officials, one of whom called his remarks “a sad chapter in the history of the Republican Party.”

Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, chairman of the Montana Republican Party wrote Tuesday in an email to fellow Republicans that while he believed it Senate Bill 305 was introduced on behalf of many county commissioners who want to reduce the cost of a special election to replace Rep. Ryan Zinke, the bill will have long-term negative impacts to the future election prospects of Republicans at all levels in Montana.

Zinke is soon expected to be confirmed to be the secretary of the interior in the Cabinet of President Donald Trump. Once that occurs, Gov. Steve Bullock will call a special election within 100 days.

Essmann’s complaint has sparked a sudden debate over the relative virtues of cost-effectiveness and partisan advantage:

Essmann said Democrats would have an “inherent advantage due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door.”

SB 305, sponsored by fellow Republican Steve Fitzpatrick, a senator from Great Falls, has been described as a one-time exception to do a federal election by mail ballot. The Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, requested the mail ballots for the special election and said the $3 million spent on the Nov. 8 general election was the most expensive statewide election on record.

Fitzpatrick denied his bill would favor Democrats and said he met with several lawmakers Wednesday morning to discuss the bill.

He said the results show there is no correlation that mail ballots bring better results for Democrats.

Fitzpatrick noted that Republicans had big wins of major seats in November. They retain majorities in the House and Senate and won many statewide seats…

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good-Giese called Essmann’s remarks a “sad chapter in the history of the Republican Party.”

“As Republicans, we stand for fiscal conservatism and SB 305 allows us to spend considerably less on this unbudgeted, unanticipated special federal election,” she said via email. “I don’t think people realize that the cost of running elections is borne entirely by counties, using property tax revenues.”

Essmann said he expected some opposition from within the party.

“I know that my position will not be popular with many fiscally conservative Republican County commissioners or the sponsor of HB 305,” he wrote. “They may be well intended, but this bill could be the death of our effort to make Montana a reliably Republican state.”

“It is my job to remind us all of the long term strategic advantage that passage of this bill would provide to our Democrat opponents for control of our legislature and our statewide elected positions,” he wrote.

The state association’s support is not surprising given the potential savings involved – savings which will be passed along to counties:

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton estimated a special election would cost $2 million…

Cascade County estimates it would cost $145,000 or more to do the election by polling place and counties, which did not budget for the cost, would be responsible for funding, officials said. By doing mail-in ballots, it will cost the county $65,000-$70,000.

The elections will be funded by taxpayers, officials said.

Essmann’s concern about all-mail balloting has company from one member on the other side of the aisle who worries about voting access for Native Americans – but the bill’s sponsor says those concerns can be addressed and resolved:

Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, told members of the Senate State Administration Committee on Monday during a hearing of SB 305 that the bill was another example of suppressing the Native American vote.

Stewart-Peregoy said tribes have undergone litigation with counties in order to get equal access to the polls through satellite offices. She feared it would not be fair to people who live on reservations who vote at those satellite offices.

Fitzpatrick said an amendment had been added that ensured that any settlement [involving] tribes and the Voting Rights Act would be honored.

I have zero interest – let alone the ability – in evaluating the likely partisan impact of an all-mail election in Montana, but it seems to me that a bill endorsed by election officials that will save money on a special election makes a lot of sense. I suppose the state could pony up and cover the cost of a traditional election itself – but the costs would still fall indirectly on taxpayers (a phenomenon a friend of mine calls “same pants, different pocket”) and counties would want an assurance their costs would actually be paid and not merely promised.

It will be interesting to see if this opposition to the bill gets any traction – or if it’s just a talking point in the upcoming campaign. Either way, stay tuned …

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