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Montana County Election Officials Start Tabulating Absentee Ballots

Kevin Trevellyan, MTPR
Tabulator operator Jeff Sillick cycles roughly 35 ballots through an automatic counting machine in the Lewis and Clark County elections office on Nov. 2, 2020.

Elections officials in Montana’s Lewis and Clark County have begun counting absentee ballots ahead of Election Day.

Elections staff in Helena will hear absentee ballots winding through two tabulator machines as long as their office is open on Nov. 2.

This is the first federal election that county staff can start counting ballots with automatic machines the morning before Election Day, thanks to a law passed by the 2019 Montana Legislature. Elections Administrator Amy Reeves says the jump start should mean Montanans get quicker results after the polls close.

“It’s a huge benefit for us to be able to get those votes through the tabulators today. I have two people right now, so it’s about 16 hours of work it’ll save us on Election Day,” Reeves said.

Lewis and Clark County had received nearly 39,000 ballots as of Nov. 2, 85 percent of all that were sent to registered voters.

County staff pull them from 18 gallon plastic tubs stacked atop any open floor space in the elections office. The tubs are labelled by precinct, so the secretary of state can ask counties for a post election audit of random areas.

“Montana will let us know which precincts they want us to audit,” Reeves said.

The same new law allowing early counting also lets counties process mail ballots three business days before Election Day. Reeves says something as seemingly trivial as letting unfolded ballots naturally flatten over the weekend means tabulators can process more of them at once without jamming. But not all of the time, as one machine operator can attest.

Kevin Trevellyan, MTPR
Tabulator operator Jeff Sillick prepares a stack of ballots for counting in the Lewis and Clark County elections office on Nov. 2, 2020.

“See, it tried to do two at the same time. So you take it out, turn one of them around, and go again," Sillick said.

If the machine registers a questionable ballot, for example, one with votes for multiple candidates in the same race, the ballot is set aside for a counting board to review.

Election Day is Nov. 3.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for American statehouse reporter.