Montana Counties Adjust To Mail Ballots For Primary Election

May 18, 2020

Montana counties have sent ballots for the Jun. 2 primary to every single active voter across the state. Elections administrators have embraced the so called all mail election because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kevin Trevellyan with Yellowstone Public Radio news asked various county officials how they’re handling the abrupt shift. He shares his reporting with Nicky Ouellet.

NICKY OUELLET: Who made the call to go to an all mail primary?

KEVIN TREVELLYAN: Gov. Steve Bullock used emergency powers in late March allowing counties to decide whether they want to conduct an all mail primary. Since then, every single one of Montana’s 56 counties chose to go that route. County officials say it was an obvious choice to limit the spread of COVID-19. Here’s Bret Rutherford, Yellowstone County’s elections administrator.

“So it was kind of a no brainer for Yellowstone County. The fact that you would have to recruit and staff large polling places with 200 some judges during a pandemic. It’s just not optimal to put people in one spot like that. So it was an easy decision for us,” Rutherford says.

NO: How will the all mail election actually work?

KT: Ballots must be returned to county elections offices by 8 P.M. on Election Day, Jun. 2. Return postage is included with each ballot, so it won’t cost voters anything to mail those envelopes.

Almost 600,000 ballots were mailed May 8, so most active voters should have theirs by now. They can check the secretary of state’s My Voter page to make sure their address is current, in case they haven’t received anything. Envelopes include three ballots, one each for the Green, Republican and Democratic parties, but voters can only fill out and return one. They also need to remember to sign the outside of their envelopes before returning them, otherwise those votes won’t be counted.

NO: Is this truly all mail?

KT: Most of the counties I reached out to offer locations for voters to drop ballots off. County offices will be open for Election Day dropoffs too, though officials are urging voters to come in earlier to avoid crowding.

Also, some counties are operating satellite voting offices on Native American reservations several days per week for voter registration and ballot drop off. Big Horn County elections administrator Dulcie Bear Don’t Walk says the satellite offices help rural residents avoid lengthy drives to the county elections office.

“Our county is extremely large in land mass and very spread out communities, so for us the satellite office allows people to come in and cast their ballot ahead of time, especially if they’re from over an hour out,” Bear Don't Walk says.

NO: How are counties preparing for the all mail election?

KT: It’s been a challenge for some officials. Big Horn County doesn’t have high absentee votership, so they needed to hire three election judges and increase staff hours to stuff all the extra ballot envelopes in time.

For many other counties, the all mail primary isn’t so large a shift from normal operations. For example, 94 percent of Gallatin County residents already voted absentee during the 2018 primary, so their infrastructure is already in place for the upcoming contest.

The bigger difficulty has been staying safe amid COVID-19. Big Horn County ordered infection protection kits for staff.

NO: What’s that?

KT: Basically an industrial size package of wipes, masks, and gloves. And Missoula County elections administrator Bradley Seaman says they’ve actually relocated their office in response to the coronavirus.

“In our new building, we were fortunate enough to have areas where we could set up two staff to a room and help spread them out. We staggered our times when people came in. And we helped make sure, you know, no communal potlucks or big gatherings like that, like we normally like to do for our workers. It was really about making sure that they had an individual space where they could work,” Seaman says.

NO: So Kevin, what kind of financial impact does conducting an all mail election have?

KT: Well, most counties say they actually save money voting by mail. Bret Rutherford with Yellowstone County says traditional polling place elections cost $1.50 per voter, whereas all mail elections typically cost about a buck per voter. Rutherford says that’s because counties don’t have to operate polling places or hire as many election judges with all mail elections. The state is also reimbursing counties on ballot return postage.

NO: What about voter turnout?

KT: There’s evidence that mail voting increases it. Most county officials I spoke with expect just that with the upcoming primary. Here’s Rutherford again.

“It’s hard to say, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this primary is probably in the top four or five as far as turnout in all time,” Rutherford says.

NO: Does that mean we can expect more mail voting in the future?

KT: Possibly. Wendy Underhill, an elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures, told me that voting by mail is really taking off in certain states. Washington, Colorado, and Utah have all begun voting exclusively by mail in the last decade. Underhill says the upcoming primary could be a sort of case study for Montana, which also has high mail votership.

“So I think we can even argue that by doing it for the primary Montana will have some up close and personal experience from which to judge whether they want to continue using mail voting into the future,” Underhill says.

Last week, California became the first state to announce an all mail general election in November due to COVID-19. We’ll see whether Montana makes a similar move.

NO: Is there anything else Montana voters should know?

KT: County officials recommend that any ballot returned by mail be sent by May 26 to ensure it arrives in time for counting by Jun 2.

Kevin Trevellyan is YPR’s Report For America statehouse reporter.