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Return Absentee Ballots Now To Make Sure They Get Counted

Jackie Yamanaka

For all of the procrastinators who have an absentee ballot is still sitting on your kitchen counter, elections officials are urging you to drop it in the mail.

The general election is coming up fast, November 8, 2016.

Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford says the reduction in the number of U.S. Postal Service sorting centers means it can take longer for mail to be delivered, especially for rural Montanans.

“We’re lucky in Billings,” he says. “We have a sorting center so it’s usually a 1 day turnaround.” He warns Billings residents that doesn’t mean if you stick your ballot in the mailbox Monday it is guaranteed to arrive in time for the votes to be counted.

Credit Jackie Yamanaka
Elections officials scan the bar code and verify signatures of on the envelopes as they arrive at the Yellowstone County Elections Office. If a signature is missing on the affidavit envelope, officials try to contact the voter to get a signature. If one cannot be obtained the ballot won't be tabulated. Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford says all of these steps are to maintain the integrity of the vote by mail election process.

As absentee ballots arrive back at the Yellowstone County Elections Office, they are processed. Clerks scan the bar code on the exterior envelope and then compare the signature on that envelope with what the office has on file.

“We really check every single signature,” he says.

It’s to prevent voter fraud.

If that signature is missing, elections officials attempt to contact the voter to get that signature.

“We cannot accept a ballot unless there’s a signature on it and it’s a valid signature,” Rutherford says. “So it will not be tabulated if you did not sign the affidavit envelope and you don’t rectify it.”

Once ballots are verified, they are sorted and audited. Officials can then pull out the green envelopes that contain the ballot and place them into the appropriate precinct tray.

Rutherford says this process retains a secret ballot.

A photo of workers sorting through mailed ballots
Credit Jackie Yamanaka
The secure room at the Yellowstone County Courthouse where absentee ballots are sorted by precinct and stored until they are opened and counted. During the vote counting, access to this room is restricted.

“People vote by mail and they think it’s not a secret ballot,” he says. “But once you get to this point, unless a voter actually writes their name on a ballot, there’s no way you can tell.”

If you procrastinate and find yourself with that absentee ballot on Election Day, Rutherford says bring it to your county elections office or to a polling place.

“Don’t think you can go to a polling place and vote a normal ballot,” he says. “You’ve been issued an absentee ballot because you requested one and you do need to vote that ballot.”

As of 8:30 a.m. a week before Election Day, Yellowstone County had received back 39,963 of the just over 62,509 absentee ballots it mailed. The county has the largest number of registered voters in the state at 94,937.

The Montana Secretary of State’s office updates these totals daily.

Statewide, over 331,438 absentee ballots were mailed out; 201,174 of them were returned to elections offices as of November 1, 2016. The Secretary of State’s office has recorded 681,953 registered voters.

It’s still not too late to register to vote in this Fall’s general election. If you are unsure if you are on the current voter rolls, that information is available at the Montana Secretary of State’s website along with instructions on how to register to vote.

Time is running out, says Rutherford.

Prospective voters can register to vote until noon the Monday before the election at their local Elections Office. There is registration on election day, but be prepared to wait, especially in the larger counties.

“In 2012, it was a 2-3 hour wait,” he says. “So don’t wait until the last minute. That’s really what is late registration. The key word being ‘late.’ These are people who haven’t registered yet. So if you can, do it this week.”