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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Professor: Growth in mail voting means longer waits for election results

Tabulator operator Jeff Sillick prepares a stack of ballots for counting in the Lewis and Clark County elections office on Nov. 2, 2020.
Kevin Trevellyan
Yellowstone Public Radio
Tabulator operator Jeff Sillick prepares a stack of ballots for counting in the Lewis and Clark County elections office on Nov. 2, 2020.

Montanans hoping for election results went to bed disappointed Tuesday night. Ballot tabulation is a complicated process even under the best of circumstances and experts say it’s getting more challenging.

It’s not just your imagination, it’s sometimes taking longer to get meaningful election results in Montana.

“You know, we did have election results coming in a little quicker in the past,” said University of Montana professor of public administration and policy, Christina Barsky.

“But we've had a dramatic shift in the way that people cast ballots in Montana. We heard last night, you know, large numbers of absentee ballots in the state, 85%. And that's not the way that it was, say, 15, 20 years ago,” said Barsky.

Processing absentee ballots is more work-intensive than for traditional in-person ballots. Envelopes need to be opened, signatures verified and then they’re sent to the tabulation machines.

“And in the U.S. we have some of the most complicated ballots in the world, in the democratic world,”says Barsky, “So not only is it a question of sort of the process changing and becoming more robust, but also things like those machines that count ballots are hundreds of thousands of dollars, very expensive, and counties are strapped for cash.”

Sweetgrass County Clerk and Recorder Vera Pederson tells MTPR a state lawthat took effect in 2019 removed a requirement that vote counting continue uninterrupted until complete. Pederson, the new head of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders says this allows election admins to give their staff a few hours rest on busy election nights.

UM Professor Christina Barsky meanwhile says policies can be adopted to help ease some of the growing burden placed on elections workers, including allowing them to open and prepare or process absentee ballots further in advance of Election Day.

Starting three business days before the election, state law allows election officials to open the secrecy envelope and place the ballot in a secured ballot box until tabulation occurs. Counting can begin, if using a vote-counting machine, the day before Election Day.

Still, she cautions, “We shouldn't mistake speed for accuracy. We all want to have our voices heard and our votes counted. And so taking the time to make sure every vote is counted accurately is a really important part of the process.”

Updated: November 10, 2022 at 9:53 AM MST
This story has been updated to clarify when Montana allows ballot processing to begin.
Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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