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Candidates calling for all-mail ballots in June primary

Polls could be closed for coronavirus safety
Voting wide shot.jpg
Posted at 1:42 PM, Mar 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-18 15:10:51-04

HELENA — At least three statewide candidates are calling for the June 2 primary election to be conducted entirely, or almost entirely, with mailed ballots, to avoid infecting voters or election judges with the coronavirus.

“We cannot fully predict when the growth curve of coronavirus will flatten in Montana, so deciding now on a mail-in election makes sense, to ensure the safety of voters and the vote,” said Whitney Williams, Democratic candidate for governor.

Under Williams’ proposal, all registered voters would get mailed ballots that could be returned via the mail or in-person to county and satellite election offices.

Williams is one of two Democrats running for governor in 2020.

Joining Williams in calling for mail ballots this week were two candidates for secretary of state: Republican Scott Sales and Democrat Bryce Bennett – although they said they’d like to leave the final decision to each county, on how to conduct its election.

Montana’s current Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, the state’s top election official, said he’s listening to health experts and watching what other states are doing, regarding coronavirus and elections. But, he said he’s not made any decision about possible changes to the June 2 primary election.

However, in a video statement late Tuesday, he encourage people to consider voting by absentee ballot – which any voter can do now, by request.

Sales, a state senator from Bozeman and one of six Republicans running for secretary of state this year,said Gov. Steve Bullock could give counties the authority through his emergency powers, which allow the governor to temporarily change regulatory law.

“This declaration would give our county election officials the flexibility they need to address this potential crisis in the way that is right for them, and ensure that every Montanan has the ability to cast a ballot safely and securely,” Sales said Monday.

Bullock has declared a state of emergency, as the state responds to the coronavirus.

Smaller counties could decide that they can open polls safely on Election Day, without big crowds, Sales said, while larger counties could close polls and rely on only mailed ballots.

Bennett, a state senator from Missoula and the only Democrat running for secretary of state, issued a nine-point plan Tuesday for the June 2 primary election.

In addition to allowing counties to hold all-mail balloting, he said absentee ballots should be sent out earlier, voters should be able to register by mail within 30 days of the election, and that drop boxes in rural areas and satellite offices on Indian reservations should be able to accept absentee ballots.

Bullock has made no decision on whether to change laws regarding the June 2 primary, said his communications director, Marissa Perry.

“The governor's immediate focus is on the measures that are necessary today to slow the growth of new infections of COVID-19,” she said. “He will be considering all options related to the June primary election as needed."

Montanans can already choose to vote by mail, with absentee ballots – but state law says that polling places must also be open on Election Day. Voters also can register to vote up until Election Day.

Currently, absentee ballots will be mailed May 8 to those who requested them. Absentee ballots also can still be requested up to noon on the Monday before the election.

Williams first called for a mail-in election last Friday, saying it’s needed to ensure a good voter turnout and reduce the chance of transmitting the coronavirus on Election Day.

“For the safety of our election judges, the public and our democracy, we need a mail-in primary election,” she said.