HELENA — COVID-19 and other changes have made this a unique election cycle in Montana – both for voters and for election officials.
45 Montana counties are conducting the election entirely through mail ballots, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 490,000 of those ballots had already been returned by Friday afternoon.
Until 8 p.m. Tuesday – the deadline for accepting ballots – the Montana Secretary of State’s Office says its top priority is making sure people have the information they need on how to vote.
“They’re needing to have their questions asked, last minute things,” said Dana Corson, the office’s director of elections and voter services. “Sometimes the voting offices are very busy and ours is the next-easiest number to contact.”
The Secretary of State’s website has updated information for each Montana county, including where voters can drop off mail ballots and polling locations for those voting in person.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a polling place county or a mail ballot county, you will have places of deposit, where do you go to the office to get in-person services,” Corson said.
The Secretary of State’s Office also hosts the My Voter Page, which lets people know whether they are registered to vote, if they have been sent a ballot and whether their mail ballot has been accepted, rejected or not yet received.
Corson said, if anyone was expecting a mail ballot but didn’t receive it, they need to contact their local elections office. You can find information on how to reach your county officials on the SOS website.
Once the ballot deadline passes, the Secretary of State’s Office will shift its attention to the vote count.
“At 8:00, our election night reporting software will wake up and start reporting results from the counties,” said Corson.
From the Montana State Capitol, they will be in regular contact with each county election office, working to resolve any technical issues with the vote count.
Counties that use automated vote-counting machines – including all the state’s largest – are able to begin tabulating their votes on Monday, though no results can be released until after 8 p.m. on Election Day.
Corson said they expect much of the vote will be counted by the ballot deadline, but that it’s hard to predict how quickly the count will go. There is always the chance of a county having mechanical problems with their counting machines. This year, there could also be impacts from COVID-19.
While the Secretary of State’s Office isn’t making any specific predictions yet about possible turnout, Corson said he expects it will be at least in the 70% to 75% range – typical for recent presidential elections. That would mean at least 520,000 total votes.
Corson also noted that they have seen 5,000 to 6,000 newly registered voters in the last week alone.