Montana Special Election Mail Ballot Dispute Races Towards April Deadline

[Image via aarp]

Back in February, I wrote about the dispute in Montana over the use of mail ballots in the May special election to replace Ryan Zinke, the new U.S. Secretary of the Interior. That dispute is rapidly coming into focus as the state faces an early April “drop-dead date” to make the decision about how to proceed. KTVN-TV has more:

Republican Greg Gianforte and Democrat Rob Quist are already campaigning in the special election to replace Rep. Ryan Zinke in Congress.

But less than 80 days before that election is held, a bill that could change the way it’s conducted is still making its way through the Montana Legislature.

County clerks and recorders around the state are already rushing to get ready for the May 25 special election.

“Under ordinary circumstances, they have two years to prepare and plan for a federal election, and now they have 78 days,” said Linda Stoll, a representative for the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders and Election Administrators. “So that is very challenging.”

Some of the biggest issues include polling places and election judges. Stoll says many of the locations election administrators usually use as polling places aren’t available on a Thursday in late May, which could mean people will have to vote at places they’re not used to.

She also says many counties are still well behind the number of judges to staff all their polls.

These issues would be alleviated by a proposal to use an all-mail ballot election on May 25, but as previously reported it’s hit some resistance:

Many election officials are backing Senate Bill 305, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls. If it passes, the bill would give counties the option to skip traditional polling places and send out all their ballots by mail.

Supporters say it could save counties a total of more than $500,000, while encouraging higher voter turnout. But the bill also faces opposition – from lawmakers who say it takes away rights for people who want to vote in person, from Native American advocates who say it would make it harder for tribal members to vote and from Montana Republican Party chairman and state Rep. Jeff Essmann, who says it would give Democrats an inherent advantage.

SB 305 passed the Senate by a wide margin last month, receiving support from Democrats and a majority of Republicans. Once the bill was transmitted to the House, Speaker Austin Knudsen assigned it to the House Judiciary Committee. It hasn’t been scheduled yet for a committee hearing.

That has supporters worried the bill might not get out of the House in time for counties to switch to all-mail elections.

SB 305 includes a provision requiring counties that want to hold a mail ballot election to submit a plan to the secretary of state 45 days before the election – in this case Apr. 10. In addition, counties have to mail ballots to military and overseas voters by the same date.

Stoll called Apr. 10 a “drop-dead date,” saying the bill had to be signed by Gov. Steve Bullock by then in order to be effective.

Bullock has spoken in favor of SB 305, and says he hopes it will reach his desk.

Despite this urgency, the Legislature doesn’t yet seem to be in a hurry to consider the bill so supporters are considering ways to pick up the pace – even as election officials plan for both eventualities:

Knudsen is standing firm against calls to hurry the bill forward. In a statement Thursday, his office said the speaker had constitutional concerns about the bill that needed to be addressed in the Judiciary Committee.

“The House has time to evaluate this bill and the Speaker believes that the constitutional questions should take precedence over wanting to push this bill through quickly,” the statement continued. “Above all else, we must ensure the validity of our elections and address possible constitutional issues with this very important topic.”

Fitzpatrick says there are options to get the bill to the floor if it doesn’t pass the committee, but they might require either a rule change or a 60-vote supermajority. He said he’s confident the majority of House members would support SB 305, but he’s not sure there are enough for those alternatives to work.

In the meantime, election officials will still work to get both polling places and mail ballot plans ready.

“They are hopeful that this legislature will pass the mail ballot, but they’re planning and preparing for both,” said Stoll.

It looks like the decision could well go right down to the deadline, which will put county election officials in a really bad spot in terms of their preparation for the May vote.  While the counties might have a preference about how the vote should take place, I’m guessing they’d all agree that uncertainty would be even worse. Here’s hoping that state lawmakers can provide clarity soon and make a decision about how the state will proceed. Stay tuned …

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