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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana Counties To Conduct Primary Election By Mail

Montana absentee ballot for the 2017 special congressional election.
Eric Whitney
Montana Public Radio

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's June 2 primary will be conducted by mail in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Same-day registration and voting will still be allowed while a new law could mean election results will be available earlier than usual, officials said.

Counties asked to be able to hold all-mail ballots to eliminate the need to staff hundreds of polling places and allow people to vote without being exposed to large groups in close quarters. In addition, many election judges are senior citizens, a group that is particularly at risk for a more severe illness, and possibly death, if they contract the coronavirus, elections officials said.

The ballots will be mailed on May 8 to active voters and will include return postage under a directive issued by Gov. Steve Bullock allowing counties to choose to hold all-mail elections.

“The default would be that Montanans can vote without leaving home, while the option to vote in-person remains,” Bullock wrote in the March 25 directive.

Ballots will be available in county election administrators' offices for in-person voting beginning on May 4.

The U.S. Postal Service recommends returning ballots by mail a week prior to the election, especially for voters in rural areas or for students or others returning ballots from out-of-state. Only Great Falls and Billings have mail-processing centers.

In the last week before the election, voters are encouraged to drop off ballots with their county election office.

Early registration ends 30 days before the election, late registration will run through noon on June 1 while same-day registration and in-person voting will be available on June 2, said Rina Fontana Moore, the election administrator in Cascade County. That county plans to hold same-day voting and ballot drop-offs at ExpoPark, staffed by employees in the elections office.

Lewis and Clark County plans to hold its voter registration and ballot drop-offs at the county election office, with social distancing requirements, said Audrey McCue, the county’s election administrator.

There will also be satellite election offices on some Indian reservations for ballot drop-off, Bullock said Friday.

The Legislature passed a law in 2019 allowing county elections staff to open mailed ballots and stack them in boxes starting the Thursday before the election. Larger counties can start counting on June 1 but cannot pull results from the machines, Fontana Moore said.

She said she hopes the earlier processing will allow larger counties to report nearly complete results on election night, rather than up to several days later.

The secretary of state's website has a My Voter Page where people can check their registration. The website also allows people to print a voter registration form to submit to the county election office for new registrants or for address updates.

In the meantime, the ACLU of Montana and the Native Rights Fund recently challenged the state Ballot Interference Prevention Act, in which elections officials can ask anyone who drops off another person's ballot to fill out a form saying whose ballot they are turning in and what their relationship is to them. A person cannot turn in more than six ballots under the law.

The challenge says the law disproportionately burdens Native Americans who live in rural areas without home mail service and would hamper workers for Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote in their efforts to ensure Native Americans' votes are submitted,

“Now it is more important than ever to make sure that folks can arrange to have their ballots picked up,” Alex Rate, legal director for the ACLU of Montana said in a statement. “Vote by mail is not accessible to everyone, especially Indigenous folks living on rural reservations. The added burden of physically going to a polling place in the coronavirus era means this law should be overturned. We are hoping for at least a preliminary ruling before the June primary.”

Fontana Moore has argued BIPA is not enforceable because people can gather ballots from voters and put them in the mail and those returning more than one ballot can't be forced to fill out the form.

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