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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Montana's Poll Workers Adjust To All-Mail Voting

A voter drops off a mail-in ballot with poll worker Vance Bennett at the Missoula Elections Center, October 21, 2020.
Megan Myscofski
Montana Public Radio
A voter drops off a mail-in ballot with poll worker Vance Bennett at the Missoula Elections Center, October 21, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic means poll workers’ jobs look a little different this year, as 45 of Montana’s 56 counties switch to all-mail elections, and polling sites adapt to social distancing.

On a cold, gray morning in Missoula, poll worker Vance Bennett opens a cake box filled with cookies in front of the Missoula County Elections Office, where local voters drop off ballots and register to vote. 

"This one says 'vote.' Looks like a sugar cookie. They're all got frosting on in different shapes."

Bennett has worked at elections for over 12 years and in that time, he’s done everything from stuffing ballots to opening them up and putting them through the machine. He says this year definitely feels different.

"I've never seen it this busy."

He’s been out at this polling site since it opened the second week of October and his ballot was the first in the box. He also says it’s important to him that every vote gets counted, so when people hand him an envelope, he checks it over to make sure there aren’t any obvious mistakes. 

"I have extra material up front to make sure it's all done properly," Bennett says.

The Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman says there was a lot of enthusiasm in the county for this kind of work.

"We trained almost double the number of workers that we’ll need."

He says normally, they’d need about 650, but that’s been reduced because of the all-mail ballot system this election. His staff recruited and trained over 400 poll workers, both new and returning, like Bennett. He said the transition was pretty painless because about 80 percent of the Missoula County voters vote absentee already. 

He says that the drop-off system has been popular this election season. On opening day, over 4,000 ballots came through.

"We got a ballot every 13 seconds."

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office reports that over 443,000 absentee ballots have been cast across the state, which is 86 percent of the total voter turnout in 2016. 

Macque Bohleen is the Elections Administrator for Carbon County, which is one of the 11 Montana counties conducting in-person voting. She says her county also already mostly votes absentee. And even with in-person voting, she and her staff still have adjustments to make. 

"It's just a little more work with the social distancing."

She says she had a shortage of election judges. About half the usual pool chose not to do it because of underlying health conditions. So she reached out to the political parties, and they helped her recruit. 

She also asked the police department and county sheriff to patrol more around Election Day. 

"Because this is such a contentious election, we want to head off any kind of problem. You know how you hope for the best but plan for the worst?"

Back in Missoula, local voter Kurt Johnson drops off his ballot in a mask and gloves.

"I'm making sure that my vote gets counted," he says.

Voters who still need to register or turn in a ballot must now do that in person at county elections offices. Registration and voting is open until 8 p.m. on election day Nov. 3.

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