Montana’s special election to fill its empty U.S. House seat is mere days away, but election officials say many voters still aren’t sure how to vote.
"The biggest hurdle for us has been trying to combat voter confusion," says Rebecca Connors, the election administrator for Missoula County.
Conners says a failed bill from this year’s legislative session that would have given counties the option to run the special election solely by mail has left many voters wondering if they can vote absentee, or if they need to vote in person on election day.
"I feel like a lot of voters never found any resolution of how that outcome came, so we're getting lots of calls," Conners says.
For clarity, it’s possible to vote by mail or at a polling place for the special election on Thursday. It’s now too late to mail in absentee ballots, but ballots can still be dropped off at county polling locations as long as they’re received by 8:00 p.m. Thursday when the polls close. The last chance to request an absentee ballot is by noon on Wednesday.*
People who need to register, change their address or request a new ballot may do so at a county election office until the polls close.
People who are planning to vote in person can head to the polls starting Thursday at 7:00 a.m.
At this point, election officials in five of the state’s largest counties are predicting a relatively low total voter turnout rate — somewhere in the 55 to 60 percent ballpark — due to voter confusion and unusual timing. They’re comparing it to a midterm election or a primary, which usually have a roughly 20 percent lower voter turnout rate than elections when a president is on the ballot.
"Usually a primary is very low, and November was off the charts, so I'm expecting somewhere in between the two," says Charlotte Mills, Gallatin County’s clerk and recorder. "I know that's a very vague answer."
Mills says Gallatin County had 41 percent voter turnout for the primary last June. For the general election in November, it was 74 percent.
"There's so many variables," says Mills.
Mills says her office has received about 30,000 absentee ballots so far, roughly 63 percent of the ballots they sent out. That’s low, compared to the 94 percent of absentee ballots returned last November. She says she has no sense of what to expect for total voter turnout, because she doesn’t know how many people will show up to vote at the polls on Thursday.
"I can't tell you, because we have got a steady stream of people coming into our office today and yesterday, asking for absentees," Mills says.
Almost two-thirds of Montanans who voted last November, voted absentee. Mills says a mail-only election would have saved counties across the state a lot of money.
"Statewide, $750,000. That was real, that the Legislature ignored," says Mills.
Mills estimates the special election will cost Gallatin County about $200,000. Missoula County expects a $230,000 bill. Smaller counties are anticipating smaller costs. Some, like Glacier County, have chosen to consolidate polling locations in order to keep costs low.
In Cascade County, Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore says she’s hearing from absentee voters who are confused by mailings sent out by both political parties:
"We've seen some new kinds of voter contact this year that we've not dealt with before. So we’ve had several hundred phone calls with people saying they’ve received a letter, the Democrats sent one out and the Republicans sent one out, that said we know you’ve received an absentee ballot but we see that you haven’t turned it in yet. Not one of those callers that we have talked to, every one of them's ballots in this office and accepted into the system. I don't know where they got that list from."
Moore says the list likely came from the Montana Secretary of State’s office, as her office hasn’t printed a list like that for any organization. Moore adds that she thinks voters are fed up with the barrage of mailings, phone calls and even text messages coming from local and out-of-state political organizations.
By Thursday, that barrage will be over, and Montana will choose to send Republican Greg Gianforte, Democrat Rob Quist or Libertarian Mark Wicks to Washington to fill the House seat left vacant after Ryan Zinke resigned to become the secretary of the Interior. Moore says while she urges voters to figure out how they’re voting sooner rather than later, the big thing is that they get their ballot in.
"It's only too late when it's 8:00 p.m. on election night to vote in the state of Montana, so I’d encourage everybody to get in there and do that," Moore says.
All county election offices will close Wednesday from noon to 5:00 p.m. while voting registers are printed. Completed absentee ballots can still be dropped off during that time. Election offices will reopen Thursday at 7:00 a.m. for voter registration.