HELENA – Montana’s top elections official says Tuesday’s primary election saw voter turnout much higher than typical midterm elections in the state.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s office says more than 281,000 voters turned in ballots in the primary. That would be the most votes ever cast in Montana for a primary in a midterm year, without a presidential election.
Total voter turnout was around 41 percent – the highest in a midterm primary since 1994. The counties with the highest turnout were Liberty and Prairie Counties, each with more than 74 percent. Big Horn and Gallatin Counties had the lowest turnout, with about 34 percent.
Stapleton said the strong turnout could be an indication for November’s general election.
“It bodes well for the fall, that there’s going to be interest in all sorts of the races – not just the federal races, but the legislative races drew lots of interest, too,” Stapleton said.
Stapleton said more than 70 percent of voters in the state cast absentee ballots. He said that meant lines at the polling places were relatively short in most places.
Election officials sent out more than 360,000 absentee ballots for this election. That was a large increase from 250,000 sent out in the 2016 primary and 200,000 sent out in the 2014 primary.
Stapleton said, overall, voting on Election Day ran smoothly.
“What we do here is look for big problems, and we didn’t have them,” he said. “We didn’t have any equipment failures; we didn’t have ballots that didn’t feed into the system. We were able to avoid some of the pitfalls from the past.”
While officials didn’t report major issues, there were some delays to the official statewide vote totals, posted on the Secretary of State’s website. Some commenters online questioned why national news outlets appeared to have more up-to-date numbers than the state site.
Stapleton said some counties, including Lewis and Clark County, had issues with the automated system they use to upload their results to the state’s database. He said the national outlets were able to update the totals manually because they had people at the individual county offices to get updated numbers, and because they were only counting votes for the larger races.
Audrey McCue, Lewis and Clark County’s elections supervisor, said the program that read the results from their tabulator was not able to capture all the votes, because of issues with how the precincts were organized. She said they could have manually input updated results for the state website, but that it would have taken four or five workers away from counting ballots for more than an hour. Instead, they decided to post printouts of updated vote totals on the county website and update the state site only once, after all the votes were counted.
Stapleton said he appreciates the work that local clerks did on Election Night, and asked the public to be patient when looking for results.
“You don’t want to sacrifice doing things really, really well by doing them quickly,” he said. “So we don’t want to put pressure on clerks to get the information updated any quicker than they’re ready to, because then people make mistakes.”
Tuesday night’s results are not yet final. Provisional ballots are scheduled to be counted on Monday. After that, Stapleton said he expects several recounts will have to be conducted. That could include the Republican primary for House District 92, in Missoula County, where Rep. Mike Hopkins currently leads challenger DJ Smith by just four votes. Another recount could come in Gallatin County, where Greg Metzger and Laura Miller Werley are tied with 4,965 votes in the Republican race for county clerk and recorder/surveyor.