Lewis and Clark County Commissioners approve mail ballots for general election

Posted at 10:10 AM, Aug 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-13 20:58:58-04

HELENA — More than 40,000 registered voters in Lewis and Clark County will get their ballots for the November election by mail.

The Lewis and Clark County Commission voted unanimously Thursday morning to switch to a mail ballot election. Last week, Gov. Steve Bullock gave counties the authority to take that option, because of concerns about spreading COVID-19.

County elections supervisor Audrey McCue said they considered several options for conducting the November election, including using traditional polling places or staffing a reduced number of polling places.

“We ultimately recommend the mail ballots as the best way to comply with the CDC guidelines that ensure people have the ability to vote without increased risk of coronavirus spread,” she said.

Many of the locations that would typically be used for polling places – like schools and senior facilities – are not available this time because of COVID-19 restrictions. In addition, the pandemic has made it tougher to recruit and train election judges.

Officials said having large numbers of voters gathering at polling places would create a higher risk of spreading COVID-19. Social distancing measures and limitations on the number of people who could be in a given location would also lead to longer lines.

Bullock also gave counties the option to use mail ballots in the June primary. All 56 Montana counties, including Lewis and Clark, took that option. The primary ended up seeing much higher turnout than in previous years.

General election ballots will be sent out to all active registered voters in the county on Oct. 9. They will have return postage already included, as in the primary.

The county will offer an option for people to vote in person from Oct. 2 through Election Day. McCue said they have not yet finalized a location for that in-person voting, though it may be held at the county elections office in Helena.

During Thursday’s meeting, commissioners asked election officials to discuss the steps that are taken to secure mail-in ballots.

McCue said officials check the signature on a received ballot envelope against the signature on that voter’s registration. If they don’t match, the voter will be contacted to resolve the issue.

In addition, the elections office has procedures to ensure a person can’t vote once in person and once by mail. Once a mail ballot is received, that voter won’t be issued an in-person ballot. If someone votes in person and their mail ballot later arrives, the mail ballot won’t be counted.

McCue noted that the majority of Lewis and Clark County voters have already been using absentee ballots.

“Those security measures are things we’ve had in place and we’ve run elections with them already,” she said.

“We have great accountability,” said Commissioner Susan Good Geise. “With the process that’s been given to us today, voters will have more choice, more opportunity than ever to be able to cast their vote, know that their vote counts, and know that their vote has been counted.”

While all counties switched to mail ballots in June, several smaller counties have already said they will move forward with a polling place election in November.

One of those is Broadwater County. Doug Ellis, the county’s election administrator, said he heard from county commissioners and the community that they wanted to see a polling place election. He said he believes they have enough trained judges to move forward. However, there will be only a single polling place, at the Townsend library. In typical years, they would also open polls in Winston and Toston.

“I think we can probably swing one polling place, but not three,” Ellis said.

This story has been updated. Original post below:

Lewis & Clark County voters will receive their ballots for the November election by mail.

The County Commission voted unanimously Thursday to conduct the election as a mail ballot election. Governor Steve Bullock issued a directive last week allowing counties to make that change in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

County leaders said switching to a mail election would reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19 in crowded polling places.

In October, ballots will be mailed out to all active registered voters in Lewis & Clark County – more than 41,000 at the most recent check.

The county will also give residents an option to vote in person from October 2 through Election Day, though elections supervisor Audrey McCue said they have not yet decided on a location for that.

Bullock also authorized counties to switch to mail ballots for the primary election in June; all 56 counties, including Lewis & Clark, took that option. The primary ended up seeing much higher turnout than previous years.