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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Don't Expect Final Vote Counts Until Wednesday, Montana Election Officials Say

Sample Montana ballot.
Montana SOS
Sample Montana ballot.

Hoping to get meaningful Montana election results by the time you go to bed tonight? If so, prepare to be disappointed.

Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby wants to set realistic expectations for voters seeking election returns tonight.

“We will definitely not be done by midnight tonight, no matter what. We will be processing until the wee hours of the morning.”

Same story in Yellowstone County, which is Montana’s most populous. Here’s local Elections Supervisor Bret Rutherford.

“We’ve expected for quite some time that we won’t be done tabulating until at least Wednesday.”

Yellowstone, like Missoula and Gallatin counties, features a two-page ballot. Rutherford says the first page featuring the state’s highest-profile contests, including the U.S. Senate and House races will get tabulation priority. The ballot’s second page in Yellowstone County has this year’s two biggest and most hotly contested ballot measures; one of which concerns Medicaid expansion. The other focuses on hard-rock mining.

Bret Rutherford: “We’ll have probably in excess of 60-some-thousand people vote. You double that ballot number and we’ll be processing ballots into business hours on Wednesday for sure."

Edward O'Brien: "Well into tomorrow"? What would you guess? What’s that mean?

BR: “I can’t really pigeonhole that, but it’ll be business hours. It’ll be into the day; probably the afternoon tomorrow.”

And that’s assuming there are no significant technical issues that crop up.

For example, Missoula elections officials reported some problems in at least four precincts today with vote-counting machines known as "M100’s."

Again, here’s Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby.

“One out of 10 of the second page of the ballots might have trouble getting processed through that M100.”

Causby says it’s not a big deal and there’s a way to both resolve the problem and get the ballot counted – it just takes a little bit of time.

But time is an issue, especially in a midterm election like this one that is drawing so much interest.

“As of 2:30 today almost 61,000 absentee ballots had been issued and we have received almost 45,000 of those absentees. That’s almost a 74 percent return rate on our absentee ballots.”

Butte-Silver Bow County Clerk and Recorder Sally Hollis reports a similar absentee ballot return rate.

“We’re at two-thirds being returned. We were over 12,000 absentees going out and close to 10,000 coming back as of this morning."

Edward O'Brien: How does that compare to years past?

Sally Hollis: “It’s extremely high.”

Elections officials are, of course, also registering new voters and tabulating ballots cast on election day. All that adds up to lots of work.

I asked election officials what would help them get all those votes counted up before midnight on election days.

They all had the same answer; basically: complain to your lawmakers. Yellowstone County’s election chief, Bret Rutherford, says all those absentee ballots can’t be counted until election day.

“If we want results earlier we need to change our laws. Many states actually will count absentees before election day. When you backlog everything into one day, you just get a logjam.” 

Missoula County elections officials report 45 minute wait times this evening at elections headquarters and recommend voters visit their local polling stations. Those can be found at and will assist all Montana voters.

Update: This headline has been updated. The original headline said Thursday rather than Wednesday.

Find live results for Montana's races herestarting once the polls close at 8 p.m. And tune in on your radio or online for NPR's special election coverage from Montana and around the country, starting at 6 p.m.

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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