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New Ballot Collection Rule Could Impact Rural, Immobile Voters

Someone drops a ballot into a box to vote in this stock photo.
Jackie Yamanaka
Yellowstone Public Radio

Tuesday marks the first election in Montana under a new ballot collection rule approved by popular vote last year. Some election officials say voters in remote areas and with limited mobility may be impacted.

Montana voters passed the Ballot Interference Prevention Act last year 62 to 37 percent. The Act limits the number of ballots a person or group can deliver on behalf of someone else to six. Previously there was no limit.

"I think it's far reaching and it impacts everybody, it really does," says Yellowstone County Election Administrator Bret Rutherford.

Previously, get out the vote groups like Montana Native Vote could round up hundreds of ballots in rural areas to bring to election offices. That led some people to worry about voter fraud, though election officials have found no evidence of voter fraud by absentee ballot in Montana.

Republican state Senator Albert Olszewski carried a GOP-backed bill in 2017 to get the Ballot Interference Prevention Act in front of Montana voters.

Now, only spouses, family or household members, caregivers or close acquaintances may turn in ballots after filling out a form at home or the election office.

Rutherford says he expects large counties with lots of students and reservation communities to feel the new rule, along with people who are less mobile.

What comes to mind especially is retirement homes," he says. "The caregiver at the rest home that might have several hundred residents used to be able to place them up and bring them down. That's not going to happen anymore. How do you do that? Do you pick and choose six people in the facility?"

He says the rule likely won’t have much on an impact on voter turnout or efficiency in Yellowstone County’s Tuesday mail-only school district elections, but he’s already looking at 2020.

"Next year in the federal elections when we're having polling place elections, we're going to have to have some extra judges at every polling place just to deal with this. It can get expensive for polling place elections," Rutherford says.

Rutherford suggests sticking a stamp on absentee ballots to avoid lines and the potential $500 fine for improperly collecting someone else’s ballot.