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Early Voting Gives Campaigns Less Time To Win Voters Over

Montana's election administrators are asking lawmakers to allow them to open and begin counting absentee ballots earlier because the number of mailed-in ballots continues to increase.

More Montanans are taking advantage of absentee voting, and the trend is forcing campaigns to adapt quickly or get left behind.

The rapid increase in absentee voting means campaigns have less time to convince most their constituents to vote for them.

In the 2014 primary, absentee votes made up 68.9 percent of all votes cast. In the 2006 general election, only 29.5 percent of people voted absentee.

Traditionally, campaigns pushed to get out the vote in just before Election Day, but that’s too late today. Early voting also means candidates and campaigns have to advertise and send out mailers sooner.

Any registered Montana voter can vote absentee, which could account for its popularity. Some states require voters to present a reason like a health issue to receive an absentee ballot.

Early voting does help candidates better target their last-minute electioneering, said Craig Wilson, a political science professor at Montana State University – Billings.

Wilson said campaigns can check to see who has requested an absentee ballot and who has returned it. Checking those lists daily can help them focus on those voters who have yet to cast ballots.

“Once you get your absentee ballot, basically (candidates) stop sending material or making an attempt to come to your door,” Wilson said.

Absentee ballots were sent out on October 6.

Because absentee voting has grown exponentially in Montana, Wilson said he suspects most candidates haven’t been able to adequately adjust to the new reality.

“The reality is you need to be running full bore and have everything running on television up before October 6,” he said.

Yellowstone County, where Wilson lives, has the most absentee voters. More than 50 percent of its voters had returned ballots as of Oct. 24.

Although mail-in ballots are credited with increasing voter turnout, Wilson said undecided voters may want to wait to get latest information. Late debates and late-breaking revelations about the candidates could make voters change their minds.

“Voters have gone to the elections office and wanted their mail in ballot back because they wanted to change their vote,” he said. “It’s too late for about half of the electorate.”

Once absentee ballots go out, campaigns spend less time promoting themselves and more time trying to get voters to return their ballots, said Bowen Greenwood, executive director of the Montana Republican Party.

“In a lot of cases they’ll try to make phone calls and see if they’ve voted and things like that,” he said.

Greenwood said organizations like Forward Montana, which promote voter turnout, also encourage citizens to return their ballots.

He too believes absentee voting is here to stay. Candidates have no choice but to accommodate it.

“It makes a huge difference,” he said. “The best advice is to go as hard as you can, as soon as you can.”

--By ERIN LORANGER

UM School of Journalism

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