County endorses mail-in ballots for special election

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The Flathead County Commissioners on Tuesday endorsed a resolution to conduct the upcoming special statewide election with mail-in ballots only, a cost-savings measure that hinges on legislation still being debated in Helena.

County Election Administrator Debbie Pierson said Wednesday that a traditional “full-poll” election with a typical number of staffed polling places would cost an estimated $175,000. If the state allows counties to only use mail-in ballots for the election, she said her office stands to save a third to half of the estimated costs.

“It’s the most prudent, fiscally responsible decision to conduct an unplanned, un-budgeted election,” Pierson said, adding that more than half of the votes cast during the 2016 election in November were absentee ballots.

Last November’s general election cost Flathead County $200,000 — nearly half of its overall budget for the fiscal year. The costs of planning elections, maintaining voting machines, staffing polling places and other election-related expenses are borne entirely by counties in Montana.

The commissioners’ resolution is required before the county election administrator can draft a formal letter notifying the Montana Secretary of State’s office that the county intends to hold its election using only mail-in ballots.

Lawmakers in Helena are currently considering legislation intended to defray those costs by giving counties the option to conduct the May 25 election via mail-in ballots only.

Senate Bill 305, sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, passed the Senate on a 37-13 vote last month. Democrats unanimously supported the measure, but some Republicans worried it could change the outcome of the election.

“The concern that’s been brought to me by many people across the state is the concern of what’s been called voter fraud,” Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said during the Senate’s Feb. 24 floor debate on the bill. Referring to political organization and get-out-the-vote groups that assist voters by delivering mail-in ballots, Thomas wondered whether some of those ballots may be discarded for political ends.

“That’s the concern. I don’t know that that’s accurate, but that’s the concern,” he said.

While many Senate Republicans ultimately supported the bill, Billings Rep. Jeff Essmann, who also serves as the state’s GOP chairman, has been urging members of his party to reject the measure.

“All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public-employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door,” Essmann wrote in an email sent to Republicans last month.

Fitzgerald argued against election-fraud “hysteria” from other members of his party, adding that about 80 percent of the general-election votes in Cascade County last year came in as absentee ballots “and Republicans never did better.”

Senate Bill 305 will receive its first hearing in the House on March 23, before the chamber’s Judiciary Committee.

Secretary of State spokeswoman Morgan Williams told the Associated Press this week that the measure needs to pass by April 10, the date by which counties are required to submit their ballot plans under the legislation.

While the bill awaits action in Helena, Flathead County will finalize its contingency plans for a full-poll election within the next week, Pierson said. Her department is hoping to have as many of its typical polling places open, although the short notice has created a scheduling conflict for at least one venue, meaning some districts’ polling places will be different.

“It’s kind of a process of hurry up and plan, and then it may all change next week,” Pierson said.

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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