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Browning Voters Faced Long Waits During Special Election

Voters wait in line outside the satellite polling place in Browning, MT, for the 2017 special election.
Lockley J. Bremner
Voters wait in line outside the satellite polling place in Browning, MT, for the 2017 special election.

Montana’s special election results were officially certified this afternoon, and June 21 has been set as the date for Greg Gianforte to be sworn in as Montana’s Congressman.

Before the election there were concerns that counties wouldn’t have the resources they needed to conduct it smoothly. There were few complaints about voting overall, but some voters in Browning had to wait 30 to 60 minutes — sometimes out in the cold rain — before casting their ballots. 

Browning-resident Dana Pemberton voted in the afternoon and then stayed at the polling place to help hand out coffee. She took a break to speak with us from the parking lot on election day.

“I came here at five to vote, and it took me 45 minutes to get through. The line was out the door to the sidewalk," Pemberton said. "I've seen people leaving because the line was so long. I saw some people drive up and see how long the line was so they just left again.”

Pemberton’s daughter, Crystal Spotted Bear, was one of those people. She showed up to vote earlier in the day, saw the long lines, and decided to return later that evening with her sister.

“I go back later, and there’s a long line, and I didn’t have a coat. And I didn’t want to wait and be cold and wait for however long just to vote,” Spotted Bear said. 

So she and her sister left without voting. Dana Pemberton and her daughters live in town, but some people drove 45 minutes one-way to get to the polling station in Browning.

Tajin Perez is with Montana Native Vote.

“They're taking a lot of extra time out of their day to vote and it seems like the polling location is not prepared," Perez said. "And therefore it's really creating a disservice for our community out there.”  

Glacier County cut five of its usual polling places — consolidating seven down to two — for the special election. The county wasn’t alone — many election administrators said they faced serious challenges finding adequate staff, booking usual polling locations and communicating with voters how, where and when they could vote.

Glacier County clerk and election administrator, Glenda Hall, spoke with MTPR a week before the special election.

"For Glacier County, the biggest challenges were the short turnaround time, not enough election judges, the schools still being in session in some of the polling places," Hall said. "Then, of course, the big thing is the cost, the taxpayers are footing the bill for this election."

Hall turned down a post-election interview request with Montana Public Radio regarding the long lines.

Regina Plettenberg is the President of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders. She’s also Ravalli County’s Clerk. She says wait times there averaged 5 to 10 minutes during peak periods.

“We had to work with a real skeleton crew. That was one of our concerns going into this was being able to line up enough of our trained workers to work at the polls and it was tight,” Plettenberg said.

Longer wait times can be expected, she says, especially during lunch and the after-work rush, but there’s a limit.

“I wouldn’t think you’d want more than, you know, I could see a half-hour wait at peak times. 45 minutes seems to me to be a little long,” Plettenberg said.

Plettenberg says she hasn’t heard of any major issues from polling places on the night of the special election. But she can understand why some of the smaller counties, like Glacier, had long wait times.

“They struggle anyway during the big elections when they’re lining up people two years in advance. They struggle to get enough," Plettenberg said. "I can imagine this election was an absolute nightmare trying to get enough people.” 

Glacier County had one of the lowest voter turnout rates it’s seen for a general election in the past two decades — 39 percent of registered voters cast a ballot, compared to the state average of 55 percent. Last November, voter turnout in Glacier County was 69 percent.

Civil rights activists have complained for years that Montana doesn’t do enough to ensure equal voting access for reservation communities.

OJ Semans is director of Four Directions — a non-profit organization that seeks to advance voting equality in Indian Country. He says what happened in the recent special election does not amount to voter suppression.

"I don't see glacier county, the clerk recorder or the county commissioners doing anything intentionally to suppress the vote," Semans said. "I see them looking out for the pocketbook, ensuring that the county has money available and being financially responsible."

Semans says 30 days before the special election, Glacier County opened a satellite voting office, where people could register to vote and cast absentee ballots early, five days a week from 8 to 5. That’s more than what most other Montana counties with large reservation populations offer.

He says Glacier County does its part to ensure equal voting access — it’s up to voters to advocate for themselves if they want something different.

"There's nothing out there now that would stop them from exercising that power that they have. They elect the county commissioners and clerk and recorder, so they have some juice," he said.

Semans also lays some of the blame for low voter turnout in Glacier County on the politicians themselves.  

“Such a low turnout, what that tells me is that the political parties ignored the Native Americans again," he said. "You can't ignore Indian Country and expect them to turn out on election day to support you.”

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
Rachel is a UM grad working in the MTPR news department.
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