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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Officials Predict Low Turnout For Montana's Special House Election

Montana absentee ballot for the 2017 special congressional election.
Eric Whitney
Montana Public Radio
Online voter registration is no longer available for the May 25 special election, but voters can register in person at local county election offices.

With less than a month left until Montana’s special election to replace former Representative Ryan Zinke, some voters are casting their ballots early.
Democratic candidate Rob Quist dropped by the Flathead County election office in Kalispell Tuesday morning to fill out his absentee ballot, which has only one item on it: United States Representative.

"I voted for the person that's going to stand up for the people of Montana, and someone who will be a representative of the entire state, and not just special interest groups and groups that are trying to take our public lands from us," Quist said.

Rob Quist with his wife Bonni, voting absentee at the Flathead County election office in Kalispell May 2, 2017.
Credit Nicky Ouellet
Rob Quist with his wife Bonni, voting absentee at the Flathead County election office in Kalispell May 2, 2017.

Quist lamented that a bill that would have authorized counties to run the election strictly by mail failed, but added:

"I'm asking people, that this is really a chance to make your voice heard, and really take back our Congress in so many ways. This is a chance to really make a statement."

Elections officials across the state are scrambling to set up and staff polling places for the special election on May 25. But they face a second challenge, the timing.

Regina Plettenberg is the president of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders:

"Of course it's a federal election in May, which is unusual, on an off year, and on a Thursday, so all of those things are very unusual about this election," Plettenberg says.

The special election falls on the Thursday before Memorial Day, and Plettenberg says she and other election administrators worry people will be out of town for the holiday.

"I don't think the turnout at the polls is going to be fantastic," Plettenberg says.

Another challenge with in-person voting is that many polling locations are not in their usual spots, they’ve already been booked for school graduations and other events.

"That has been a big challenge. Throughout the state we figure 50,000 voters have had to be relocated," says Plettenberg.

For example, in Ravalli County, where Plettenberg is the election administrator, people who normally vote at Hamilton High School will now vote at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds.

"So just in Ravalli County, that's almost 5,000 voters," Plettenberg says.

Plettenberg says her office mailed out notices to all voters affected by location changes, along with information about how to vote absentee.

"Getting the word out to voters that they can vote by absentee for this election is going to be important, because people are going to have a lot of other conflicting obligations that week."

Plettenberg says her office received many calls from voters who thought voting absentee would not be an option in the special election. In fact, absentee ballots were mailed out yesterday to thousands of Montanans who already signed up to receive one, and they can be requested from county clerks until noon on May 24, the day before the election.

Plettenberg says the state typically sees a high return rate for those mail-in ballots:

"In the last presidential election, 95 percent of the ballots were returned. So, even in the last presidential, our absentees outnumbered our poll voters. So I think that's even going to be a bigger margin in this election, a bigger gap."

Montana boasts a relatively high voter turnout rate. Almost 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. That’s well above the national average of 55 to 58 percent of eligible voters. But Plettenberg has no illusions about potential voter turnout — in person or by mail — for a special election held on a Thursday, for many people at alternate locations, before a holiday weekend.

"I think we'll be lucky to get 60 percent. That's what I'm hoping for," Plettenberg says.

All of these oddities are also upping the cost of the special election, which does not have an earmark in county budgets. Between the usual cost of printing and mailing ballots, programming voting machines, paying salaries to election staff and hiring temp workers, along with the added cost of relocating polling places and mailing out notices, Plettenberg says "this is really strapping the counties."

Despite the challenges, the special election will occur on May 25, and Montanans will elect a new representative. Plettenberg says a ballot with only one item on it isn’t usually enough to draw people to the polls, but this ballot might.

"I do think people care, because it's their congressional candidate, and that's a big deal," says Plettenberg.

Online voter registration is no longer available, but voters can register in person at local county election offices.

You can find more information about how to register to vote, how to vote an absentee ballot, and where and when to vote in person.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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