As of Friday, 45 of Montana’s 56 counties have filed plans to hold all-mail elections this November after Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive in August allowing counties to do so. However, some people are pushing back against the measure and Republican officials have filed a lawsuit trying to stop it.
Rana Wichman, clerk and recorder for Fergus County, suggested to county commissioners that an all-mail ballot vote was the right call this year.
Wichman is worried about the risk election judges face at polling precincts as COVID-19 continues to spread. She said one of her election judges is 92 years old.
“You know, she is sharper than most of us, but she just ... I don’t feel it’s right to put her in that position,” Wichman said.
There was pressure from some Fergus County residents who felt all-mail voting violated their constitutional rights, Wichman added. She said there was also concern surrounding the governor’s authority to issue the directive.
Commissioners ultimately decided Fergus County will hold an in-person election.
“The commissioners got a lot of heat from the community and decided to go with the polling place [election],” Wichman said.
Fergus County is one of 11 counties holding in-person voting, according to the Secretary of State’s office, and its conflict is one that has played out around the state. Now it’s also reached the legal system.
President Donald Trump’s campaign, along with the Montana Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, filed a lawsuit against Bullock and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton over the election directive.
Filed Sept. 2, the lawsuit argues that Bullock’s directive on all-mail ballots is a “brazen power grab” that violates state law and the U.S. Constitution. It states all-mail voting will lead to fraud, a claim Trump has repeatedly made without evidence.
Bullock, a Democrat running in a tight race for U.S. Senate against incumbent Sen. Steve Daines, labeled the lawsuit as Washington outsiders trying to take away local control during a press conference Thursday.
“And I think that most folks in Montana recognize just how absurd that really is,” Bullock said.
Bullock has said that the lawsuit appears to be part of a pattern of lawsuits filed by Republicans to limit access to voting.
A Flathead County commissioner repeated that argument Thursday, when the all-Republican commission voted 2-1 to change course and conduct their election with all-mail ballots. The commissioners had previously announced they would open in-person polling precincts.
Flathead County has been labeled as one the state’s COVID-19 hotspots since earlier this summer.
County Commissioner Randy Brodehl pointed to legal concerns when discussing the change to all-mail ballots. He said only the state Legislature has the power to allow counties to conduct all-mail voting, not the governor.
“I challenge each of my colleagues to consider first state law — already in place — requiring a polled election, before we’re moved by a political machine that is attempting to control us as elected officials,” he said.
Brodehl opposed the change, but fellow Flathead County commissioners Phil Mitchell and Pam Holmquist voted in favor of election conducted with all-mail ballots.
During the meeting, Mitchell said the deaths of four people in a Flathead County nursing home changed his mind on the issue. All four had died the previous week, and Mitchell was worried the COVID-19 pandemic would discourage voting.
“I want people to vote — Democrat, Republicans — I want to hear from the public so we can do their job,” he said.
Mitchell received 117 emails in support of all-mail ballots, but only 11 opposing it. People from both sides spoke at the meeting, with some stating vote-by-mail leads to fraud.
Mitchell rejected the argument, saying Flathead County has a good elections department and no fraud.
Fergus County Clerk and Recorder for Rana Wichman isn’t concerned about fraud either. Although she is overseeing another in-person election this year, she warned it won’t resemble this elections won’t resemble previous years. Fergus County has cut the number of polling places, going from seven precincts to just one.
“And it’ll just be at the fairgrounds, if they want to vote in-person,” Wichman said.
Over in Lincoln County, election administrator Chris Nelson has created an election plan to hopefully offer the best of both worlds.
The county is holding an all-mail ballot election, but will also open seven polling precincts staffed with election judges. People can take their ballots in, fill them out there and drop them off.
“A lot of these people have voted at these same polling places for 50, 60 years, and we don’t want to take that away from them,” Nelson said.
The effects of the Republican lawsuit against Bullock on counties choosing all-mail ballots are unclear.
Responding to the plaintiff’s motion for an expedited response, Bullock’s chief counsel Raph Graybill submitted a written argument against expediting Friday. Bullock issued the directive more than a month ago, Graybill wrote, and the plaintiffs waited too long to challenge it.
Graybill also noted Montana’s June primary, which was held by mail-only voting statewide, resulted in a “safe, secure election free of fraud.” He wrote it is too late for many counties to change their plans now.
General election ballots will be mailed on Oct. 9.