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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Mail Only Voting For Zinke's Replacement Could Save $500,000

Election sign reading 'polling place' on a door at a Missoula polling place.
Josh Burnham
Montana Public Radio
Mail Only Voting For Zinke's Replacement Could Save $500,000

In less than three months, counties across the state will hold a special election to select a replacement for Montana’s now vacant U.S. House Seat.

After Ryan Zinke was confirmed as Interior secretary in the Trump administration Wednesday, Governor Steve Bullock called a special election on May 25 — 85 days away. County election officials expect that election to cost about $2 million, split among Montana’s 56 counties. And most counties haven't planned or budgeted for that.

"It’s giving us 85 days to do what we normally do in two years," says Regina Plettenberg who is Ravalli County's clerk and recorder, and the elections administrator. Plettenberg is also the president of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders.

The scale of last November's election cost counties a lot of money, and it was even more expensive because ballots had to be reprinted with a new name after the Libertarian candidate in the U.S. House race died.

The cost of another election is leading many county officials to push for the upcoming special election to be done exclusively by mail-in voting.

Plettenberg says doing that could save Ravalli County $12,000, and statewide, counties could save more than $500,000.

If counties have to pay for staffing and equipment required to host polling places, Plettenberg says it could mean local government budgets take a hit:

"What I've heard is, they're basically saying either they're going to have to dip into their reserves if they have them, or they're going to have to cut services."

A Republican sponsored bill would allow counties to forgo physical polling places for this election only, and run things by mail. It passed the Senate last week but not all of the Republican majority in the legislature support it.

GOP state Chairman Jeff Essmann, who is also a state House rep, is urging his party members to kill the bill. In an email last week he said, "while I believe it has been introduced on behalf of many county commissioners who wish to reduce the fiscal impact to their county budgets," the bill will have negative impacts in electing Republicans.

Essmann also wrote, "all mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections."

The executive director for the Montana Democratic party called Essmann's claim bogus.

Senate Bill 305, to allow mail-in ballots is now awaiting its first hearing in the House of Representatives.

Rep. Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson, says he's worried the bill may not be constitutional. He's concerned  that giving counties the choice to either run the election by mail only or a combination of mail-in and polling places, may create unequal voting access:

"That would be treating voters differently in each county," Hertz says. "And a voter in the county with all mail ballots, they may want to vote the conventional way and go to the polls. And under the U.S. constitution, my understanding is that that's a violation of equal protection, treating voters equally."

But, in Lake County, where Hertz is from, the woman in charge of running elections doesn't share his concerns:

"I don’t know where they are coming up with that," says Kathie Newgard, Lake County's elections administrator.

She says some elections are already done exclusively by mail ballot:

"All of our school elections, municipal elections, fire elections, we've got one in Lake County on library district. Those are all done by mail as it is. The only ones we can't do by mail right now, until the law is changed, are the federal general and primary elections."

Newgard says if Senate Bill 305 passed, and the county could run the special election through mail-in ballots, it could save Lake County in the range of $30,000 to $40,000.

When the bill was debated on the Senate floor, Republicans disagreed over the concerns of all mail-in voting creating greater opportunities for voter fraud and how this bill could favor certain segments of the population.

State lawmakers are currently on break and will come back to Helena early next week, when members of the House will start debating the bill.

Until Senate Bill 305 becomes law, or is shot down, county officials across the state won’t know for sure how the special election is going to work, or how much it will cost.

They say that the deadline for whether this election will be mail-in or conventional is April 10.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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