HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's election administrators are asking lawmakers to allow them to open and begin counting absentee ballots earlier because the number of mailed-in ballots continues to increase.
The Senate has passed a bill that would allow absentee ballots to be opened starting on the Thursday before Election Day and for the counting of absentee ballots to start the Monday before Election Day.
A House committee heard the bill on Wednesday. Supporters said the sheer volume of absentee ballots means they need more time to prepare and count ballots to meet voter, candidate and media expectations of when election results should be available.
Currently, counties can start opening absentee ballots on the Monday before Election Day and can start counting them on Election Day. Clerks from Missoula and Cascade counties said counting their ballots in November took at least 40 hours.
Casey Hayes, the elections manager for Gallatin County, said the bill would allow his office to be more efficient and effective while maintaining current levels of security and secrecy.
Election administrators said with early processing, absentee ballots would be removed from their secrecy envelopes, unfolded and placed in locked and tamper-proof boxes based on precinct. The boxes are then held in locked storage until counting can begin.
"In an age of instant gratification, voters and candidates want those results as soon as possible," Hayes told the House State Administration committee Wednesday. "Allowing tabulation to begin a day early would provide more complete results by the close of polls on Election Night."
Administrators said the results counted by the tabulation equipment can only be accessed by election administrators, and each attempt to access them is logged, providing another layer of security.
Dana Corson, the state director of elections, said Secretary of State Corey Stapleton strongly opposes the bill.
"Secretary Stapleton ran for office on the platform of promising Montana to improve the integrity of elections," Corson said Wednesday. "This bill decreases the integrity of elections" by opening ballots early.
He suggested clerks could come in at 12:01 a.m. Monday to start opening ballots and begin counting at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, giving them another eight hours on each of those days to process and count ballots.
Corson argued that while election fraud hasn't been reported to him, it often goes undetected and if detected, unpunished.
"The problem I have with a lot of those comments is: How do you prove a negative? You can't," said Bret Rutherford, the election administrator in Yellowstone County, Montana's largest county by population. He said the bill would give his office more time to deal with ballots that are already sitting there, sometimes for weeks.
"It is sitting in this envelope in a locked room waiting to be unfolded the day before Election Day or Election Day," Rutherford said. "This little piece of paper doesn't add that much security."
The bill, which would not apply to counties that hand-count their ballots, includes fines between $100,000 and $500,000 and punishment by up two years in prison for releasing results before the polls close. It passed the Senate 30-19 in February. It still must pass out of committee before going to the full House.
Senate President Scott Sales, a Republican who is running for secretary of state in 2020, voted against the bill.