HELENA — With just a few days left in Montana’s all-mail primary election, election officials are making the final preparations to start counting the votes.
At Helena’s City-County Building Friday, election workers were already taking mail ballots out of their envelopes, getting them ready to be counted next week.
“We have ten election judges who are working Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday, and they’ll be spending most of their time just removing the ballots from the envelopes,” said Audrey McCue, Lewis and Clark County’s elections supervisor. “If you think about it, we’ve got 21-thousand envelopes to open and take the paper out, so it is time-consuming.”
This is the first statewide election since the Montana Legislature passed Senate Bill 162 during the 2019 session. That bill allows counties with more than 8,000 registered voters to start opening envelopes three business days before Election Day. The ballots are then securely stored until the day before Election Day, when officials can begin running them through the automatic counting machines.
Yellowstone County elections administrator Bret Rutherford said having those extra days will be especially helpful this year. His office is taking precautions against the spread of COVID-19, including increased social distancing and fewer election workers compared to a normal year.
“Hopefully, stretching it out over four days rather than one or two days really makes a difference,” he said.
As of Thursday night, more than 285,000 ballots had already been returned statewide. That is almost half of the roughly 600,000 ballots mailed out – and already enough for a voter turnout of more than 40%. Leaders say it appears Montana is on track for one of the highest primary turnouts in the past 25 years.
All 56 Montana counties chose to hold all-mail elections this June, after Gov. Steve Bullock gave them the option as a way to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Rutherford said, in Yellowstone County, well over 90 percent of votes have already been cast by mail, so this election has not been a major change for them. However, that’s not the case for all counties.
“Especially for small, rural counties, where say, maybe they don’t have incorporated towns, so they don’t run their city elections by all mail ballot, or maybe they don’t actually conduct the school elections for the school districts in their county, so this might be a first for some counties actually,” said Rutherford.
There is still time to turn in a mail ballot. Counties will be accepting ballots if they receive them by 8 p.m. on Tuesday. The Montana Supreme Court confirmed that deadline in a legal case this week.
At this point, election officials recommend that voters drop their ballots off in person, to ensure they arrive in time. In Lewis and Clark County, ballots can be taken to the elections office in the City-County Building. Yellowstone County will set up four drop-off locations – two in Billings, one in Huntley and one in Laurel – on Election Day.
You can contact your local election administrator if you need to know where to bring your ballot, if you still haven’t received a ballot, or if you have any other questions about the election.
While thousands more ballots are likely to be returned by Tuesday evening, officials believe the majority of the votes will be ready to release once the final deadline passes.
“Since this election is all by mail, we should have most votes counted in the first release of results at 8 p.m.,” said McCue.
“At least in Yellowstone County, we’re going to have some really good numbers come 8 o’clock,” Rutherford said.
Montana election administrators have also set up the website votinginmontana.com, as a resource to answer many of the questions voters may have.