What you need to know about voting in Montana's upcoming primary election
Since the last time Montanans went to the polls, new voting laws have been passed, challenged in court, blocked and unblocked. MTPR’s Shaylee Ragar and Freddy Monares make sense of it all and answer questions about where and how to cast a ballot in the June 7 primary.
FREDDY MONARES: So Shaylee, give us a roadmap to understand these changes.
Vote in person or by mail. Both are secure
SHAYLEE RAGAR: Montanans, and much of the country, voted in the 2020 election mostly by mail as officials tried to prevent people gathering and spreading COVID-19.
Of course, mail-in voting with absentee ballots is still available and already underway in Montana. Ballots were mailed to voters last Friday. Those ballots need to be put in the mail by May 31 or they may not be counted on time. If you don’t get your ballot in the mail by then, it can be dropped off at a polling place or a county elections office.
And for the first time since 2018, most voters can go in person to vote. You can find your nearest polling place by going to sosmt.gov and look under the Elections & Voter Services tab.
FREDDY MONARES: We’ve heard criticism of voting by mail over the last two years. Former president Donald Trump has been one of the most vocal on the issue. Is it safe to cast a ballot by mail?
SHAYLEE RAGAR: Yes. Mail-in voting is secure. Claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election have been refuted by courts and elections experts.
Connor Fitzpatrick is the elections supervisor of Lewis and Clark County and explains that safeguards are in place to ensure a ballot has an authentic signature.
“If we have any questions, we get a second set of eyes to look at it. And if there’s any further questions, we will put that aside, we will contact you by mail and by phone so that you can come in, fill out a form, and get that rectified.”
If a voter does not fill out that form and fix the problem, their ballot is not counted.
Bring a photo ID
FREDDY MONARES: Shaylee, there were several changes made to election law in Montana during the 2021 legislative session. Republican lawmakers cited concerns about election security when they passed the policies. There have also been several lawsuits challenging those laws, arguing they make voting difficult. What’s the status of those?
SHAYLEE RAGAR: Two of the biggest changes in election law require photo identification at the polls and end same-day voter registration. Those are still being challenged in court but have been allowed to stand for the primary election on June 7.
FREDDY MONARES: So if someone votes in person they need to bring a photo ID?
SHAYLEE RAGAR: Right. A drivers’ license, tribal ID, military ID, or concealed carry permit work for that. They need a name, address and photo.
Registration closes at noon June 6 - the day before election day.
FREDDY MONARES: And when is the new deadline to register to vote?
SHAYLEE RAGAR: Noon before election day. So, Noon on Monday June 6.
FREDDY MONARES: What else is new?
SHAYLEE RAGAR: The state now requires local election administrators to update their active voter registration rolls annually instead of every other year. Supporters of the measure say that makes it less likely that absentee ballots will get sent to inactive or deceased voters.
Fitzpatrick, the elections supervisor, says in Lewis and Clark County, this has been a minor change.
“We check everyday anyway. We check obituaries, we check in with motor vehicle to make sure we get registrations for people who have just updated their vehicle registrations.”
Another change passed by lawmakers would have restricted political activity, like voter registration and signature collection on college campuses, and regulated how judges campaign for open benches. But that change was struck down by a court.
A Lewis and Clark County judge ruled that section of the law was added last minute without public participation.The Montana Attorney General’s office just announced they won’t appeal that decision.
Can I help people register to vote?
FREDDY MONARES: A listener sent us a question asking how someone might help register other people to vote – is that possible?
SHAYLEE RAGAR: It is. Fitzpatrick says someone interested in getting others registered to vote should first check in with their local county elections office for any county-specific rules. But otherwise, copies of a voter registration card can be made, the person registering to vote must sign the card themselves in pen, and then the organizer can return the signed copies to a county elections office.
Vote only one ballot in the primary
FREDDY MONARES: What’s a common mistake voters should avoid?
SHAYLEE RAGAR: Montana has an open primary, so voters receive up to three ballots specific to Democratic, Republican and Libertarian candidates. But voters must pick just one of those ballots to fill out and return.
“For the primary, just vote one party or the other.”
Voting across the political aisle is possible during the general election.
Check your registration status & sign your envelope
SHAYLEE RAGAR: Other than that, Fitzpatrick wants to remind people to sign their envelopes, and to check the front and back of ballots. People can also make sure their registration is up-to-date at the My Voter Page on the Montana Secretary of State’s website.
Election workers are people too
SHAYLEE RAGAR: Finally, Fitzpatrick asks voters to remember that while tensions around elections have been high, elections administrators, staff and volunteers are people, too.
“If you get a chance, please thank your elections worker. If it's at a polling place, all the elections judges are your neighbors. They are people who you may not have ever met, but they are people who live in the same town as you.”
FREDDY MONARES: Thanks for sharing your reporting.
SHAYLEE RAGAR: No problem, Freddy.
This story was produced as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.