Montana Counties Scramble to Prepare for Special Election After Mail Ballot Effort Fails

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Last Friday, after weeks of controversy and maneuvering, the Montana legislature rejected a last-ditch “blast” attempt to establish an all-mail ballot for the May 25 statewide special Congressional election. Now, the county election officials who had supported vote-by-mail as a cost-saving measure are scrambling to get ready for next month’s vote. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle has more:

County election officials are securing polling places, hiring election judges and bracing for higher costs for this spring’s special election now that any hope that votes will only be cast by mail has been quashed.

A bill to give counties the option of making Montana’s May 25 special election a mail-ballot only contest has been all but buried at the Montana Legislature despite support from many county governments. Those counties said the bill would save them money, but some Republican leaders opposed the measure because they said it would give Democrats an edge in the race to fill Montana’s one U.S. House seat.

A final effort to move the bill forward failed last Friday, and now that the bill appears dead, county officials are plugging ahead and dealing with the challenges of organizing an election in a hurry.

Election officials are bracing themselves for the time, effort and cost of the election, which may require some adjustments to run successfully:

Charlotte Mills, the Gallatin County clerk and recorder, said a polling place election usually costs the county about $200,000, about double the cost of an all-mail election. The increase in cost largely comes with hiring election judges, fewer of which are needed for an all-mail election.

Aside from paying them, it’s also not easy to find election judges this time of year. Mills said her office has contacted about 200 people who might be available to work the election, and that they typically have close to 300. She said to eliminate the need for more judges, they’ll consolidate processes at some polling places, like having every voter at a polling place report to the same check-in table regardless of precinct.

“By doing that we can conserve on the number of election judges that we might need,” she said.

The timing of the vote is also unusual and brings its own set of issues:

Finding judges is a problem smaller counties have run into as well. Maritza Reddington, the Park County clerk and recorder, said they usually hire about 60 election judges for the county’s polling places, but some of them are snowbirds who have yet to fly back north.

“A lot of our judges go to Arizona, and they’re not quite back yet,” Reddington said.

The election is on the Thursday before Memorial Day Weekend, which Reddington said is another barrier to finding judges. She also is worried the police won’t be able to play their regular role in the county’s election. Usually, law enforcement officers will deliver ballots to Livingston from the county’s outlying polling places in Gardiner, Clyde Park and Emigrant. But Reddington said she’s not sure law enforcement will have enough time ahead of the big holiday weekend.

The state debate over the mail ballot has left a bad taste with many counties:

Kathleen Mumme, the Madison County clerk and recorder, said her county also hires about 60 judges for a typical election, and that for this one they’re hoping to have at least 40. She said their bill could run as much as $6,000 more than it would in an all-mail election.

Mumme said the whole ordeal would have just been easier if the election was mail-only, and she’s disappointed that the bill to do that failed.

“The bottom line for me is that we have legislators who continually talk about government overreach,” she said, “and yet that’s exactly what they’re doing to the counties.”

This has been a frustrating situation for many Montana counties, who viewed the mail ballot question as a way to serve voters at a lower cost – only to have the legislature focus on it as another opportunity for partisanship. It will be interesting to see how the counties cope with planning for the special election; I have little doubt they will find a way to pull it off but it will not be easy.

Stay tuned …

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