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County Election Officials On Voting In This Year's Unusual Election

A Montana 2020 primary election ballot in its return envelope
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
A Montana 2020 primary election ballot in its return envelope

Early voting is underway in Montana. The novel coronavirus pandemic has led most counties to conduct an all-mail ballot election, while others are sticking to a traditional polling place election. YPR News’ Kevin Trevellyan convened a Zoom roundtable of county elections officials to find out how preparations are going and what voters should know as an unusual election season wraps up. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

Kevin Trevellyan: We have five elections administrators here, including Bret Rutherford with Yellowstone County, Montana's largest by population. There's Shari Robertson with Prairie County, one of the state's smallest counties. Rina Moore in Cascade County, Doug Ellis in Broadwater County and Dulcie Bear Don't Walk in Big Horn County.

We'll start in Yellowstone County, which is holding an all mail ballot election. Bret, how are things going over there?

Bret Rutherford: Well, it's going so far so good. Probably the biggest thing is we're getting calls from people, still thinking they have to get on the absentee ballot list to get meld a ballot, which is not the case, or people just not knowing that it's an all mail ballot election and saying they want to go to a polling place, which we don't have this election.

Kevin Trevellyan: Bret, can you explain how the process of acquiring personal protective equipment is going in Yellowstone County?

Bret Rutherford: It's been rough. Finding things is not easy, so it's kind of hit or miss when we can actually find something. You order it in bulk and we've also bought some things that traditionally aren't meant for a pandemic.

We have these face shields that are set for industrial settings. They kind of look like welder's masks but they're not dark, but it serves the same purpose. So you got to get creative it seems like. But people come into the office and literally lick their envelopes right in front of us and put it into the box. That is pretty gross to think about. It's weird to watch somebody like an envelope and try to hand it to you.

Kevin Trevellyan: The pandemic is obviously why many counties are holding an all mail in election, including in Cascade. Rina, can you explain how your office is keeping everyone safe from the virus?

Rina Moore: We've got all of our hand sanitizers. We've got pens that we only are letting them use one time before we collect them and sanitize them. We've got a gal out in the hall that makes sure that they're sitting six feet apart while they're waiting in line out there. And when we get to election day, anybody that wants to come in a mask is going to be mandatory. If they don't want to wear a mask, then they'll sit at a table outside our facility. And I mean, outside the facility.

Kevin Trevellyan: We'll move to Broadwater County, which is one of 11 counties holding a traditional polling place election. Doug, can you explain the rationale behind that decision?

Doug Ellis: We noticed that area we've had a lot of voters that haven't updated their registration for 20 years and we wanted to give those people a chance to have a place to come in and vote if they didn't receive an absentee ballot. But we've been at one COVID case for about two months. Now I hear that we have 15 being tested. So might not be as smart a move as we thought it would, but it will at least give the people a chance to come in and vote. And we usually have three polling places. This year we're narrowing it down to one because of lack of poll workers.

Kevin Trevellyan: Finding poll workers is one of the concerns election administrators initially brought up when they asked the governor for the option to conduct an all mail in election. Can you talk about that a little more, Doug?

Doug Ellis: We are probably at about half of what we normally have. It's a tough job. They don't want to sit in one place for 16 hours with a mask on and submit themselves to the people that might have this virus. It's just safety for them.

Kevin Trevellyan: Shari, this is the first general election you've overseen as an administrator in Prairie County. It's been an eventful one between the pandemic and all the election related court cases that have sprung up recently, any big surprises working through the process?

Shari Robertson: We did an all mail in, too. As of right now, our school went under lockdown again, so I would have lost my only polling location. So I am glad that we decided to go that way.

Kevin Trevellyan: Rina, should voters expect any other precautions in Cascade County?

Rina Moore: Because of the climate in this election, and I'm going to say animosity that's out there right now, we've got a security guard that will guard our building in the evenings. We've got security guard that will guard the parking lot when we're over at the fairgrounds. We've got sheriff's deputies inside the building. We've got a bigger police presence on that side of town.

Kevin Trevellyan: There's been a lot of emphasis on poll watchers nationally this election cycle. Has anyone noticed poll watchers in their own county? Bret, in Yellowstone County?

Bret Rutherford: We've had observers from both parties. They're just kind of sitting on all along a wall, just watching paint dry right now, because it's just a lot of people just kind of trickling in and leaving town. So they're getting a ballot now, stuff like that. Basically they can be there. They can be eyes and ears, and not a mouth.

Kevin Trevellyan: I mentioned that there's been a lot of election related court cases this year. Several of those have involved the Ballot Interference Prevention Act (BIPA), which caps the number of ballots you can drop off for someone else among other things. [BIPA will not be in effect in the Nov. 3, 2020 general election.] Dulcie oversees elections in Bighorn County. Can you explain the prevalence and rationale behind ballot collecting in Indigenous communities?

Dulcie Bear Don’t Walk: Big Horn County is unique. We have two reservations. We don't have one. We have two. There's not a lot of access to cars, a lot of access to be able to get to the polling location or get to Hardin to fill out the paperwork or do whatever they need to do. So to all of a sudden say, you can't bring in the ballots for your family. That was a hardship.

Kevin Trevellyan: It's also relevant that elections officials haven't found much evidence of voter fraud in regards to ballot collection. I'd like to switch gears a little bit. Rina, do you have any idea when Montanans should expect to see results from this election? Cascade County is on the larger side for Montana.

Rina Moore: I'm pretty sure of our results, we should have the majority of ours done by midnight. What we all found in this last election is that this is a more efficient way to run the election.

Kevin Trevellyan: Bret, with Yellowstone being an all mail in county, what key dates or procedures do voters need to be aware of, just to make sure they’re vote is counted?

Bret Rutherford: If you're going to mail your ballot, the Postal Service recommends seven days in advance. After that I advise anybody just to drop it off in person.

Kevin Trevellyan: Folks should also make sure they sign their envelopes, all that stuff, right?

Bret Rutherford: Please review the instructions that we've put in there. Look at the dates on there, where you can drop your ballot off. You have to sign it. I mean flat out: It will not get counted if you don't sign it.

Kevin Trevellyan: Doug, as someone who's overseeing an election in a traditional polling place county, is there anything voters need to know? Any dates, any procedures people should be aware of?

Doug Ellis: It'd be the same as any election. If you want to go to the polls show up between 7 A.M. and 8 P.M. and cast your ballot or otherwise, get it here on time.