HAMILTON — Thursday was the deadline for county commissions across the state to decide if they would support a mail ballot for the upcoming special election to select Montana’s sole congressman.
By late afternoon, Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, president of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, had learned that 54 of the state’s 56 counties had passed a resolution to support a mail ballot.
Only two – Richland and Bighorn – opted to hold that election at the poll.
The resolution was required under a bill working its way through the Legislature that would allow for a mail ballot for the May 25th election that will decide who will be the state’s new congressman.
The seat opened after Ryan Zinke was named Secretary of the Interior.
Since SB 305 has not yet passed the House, the decision to adopt a resolution was a proactive measure, Plettenberg said. The proposed legislation required that county commissioners pass the resolution allowing for the mail ballot 70 days before the election.
All of that could become moot March 23 when the House Judiciary Committee holds its hearing on SB 305, the legislation that would allow counties to use a mail ballot for the special election.
“That hearing could be our last hurrah,” said Plettenberg. “We will really know then where we stand. If it comes out of the committee meeting, we’ll have a good shot at it.”
That association and numerous county commissions have joined to ask the Legislature to allow counties the option of holding this one special election by mail ballot in order to save cost and confusion.
But that might be difficult in a Legislature controlled by Republicans. State GOP Chairman Jeff Essmann, who represents Billings in the Montana House, has pushed hard against a mail ballot, arguing that it would help the Democratic candidate.
Following Zinke’s confirmation, Gov. Steve Bullock selected Thursday, May 25 for the special election.
That day comes just before Memorial Day weekend. Election officials worry about finding enough election workers to man the polls and, in some cases, places to house the polling places since many school buildings are reserved for graduation ceremonies.
But some legislators – including, according to Plettenberg, the entire House delegation from Ravalli County – remain opposed to SB 305.
“I’m very disheartened by that,” Plettenberg said. “They are not listening to their commissioners and clerks.”
House Majority Leader Ron Ehli of Hamilton said he is hearing from people on both the sides of the issue, including Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who is opposed to the mail ballot.
“We are getting a lot of heat from people in opposition of the date for the election,” Ehli said. “People want to know why the election is being held on Thursday, May 25, instead of a Tuesday in June.”
Ehli said it “makes no sense to us whatsoever” that the governor picked that date.
The legislator said he’s also hearing from people who question the integrity of an all-mail ballot.
“In my mind, there’s no question at all in our clerk and recorders,” he said. “I have total confidence in them.”
But, Ehli said, there have been “too many cases of all-mail ballots” where the process has been abused over time. Ehli said some of his constituents have brought those concerns forward.
Currently, Ehli said voter confidence in the election process in Montana is rated very high.
“With the good work of our clerk and recorders, voters in this state have different options,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons why Montana’s elections rank so high. People get to vote the way they want. That’s key to me.”
While the money issue is important, Ehli said, “it can’t be the only issue in the discussion.”
Rep. Nancy Ballance of Hamilton said she's heard concern about legal issues surrounding a mail ballot, including how same-day voter registration would occur.
"What I see is these legal issues keep popping up," Ballance said. "There are deadlines that have to be met. Everyone thinks it's a good idea because it will save some money...Everyone is running toward this as a way to save some money, but I think it could end up in a mess. There is more to it than meets the eye."
The Ravalli County Commission voted unanimously recently to approve a resolution to allow for a mail ballot in the special election.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said the commission’s decision was based both on the fact they knew their election office would struggle to find polling places and poll workers, as well as the financial hit the county would take by holding a poll election.
A poll vote will cost the county $65,000 versus a mail ballot cost of about $50,000.
“That is a significant cost savings for us,” Burrows said. “All the costs for this special election have been shifted on to the counties. We will have to pay for those costs out of our operating reserves.”
The unexpected election hasn’t been the only unanticipated cost that Ravalli County has been forced to dig deep into its pocketbook to pay for this year.
“We’ve just come through a really heavy year for snowplowing,” Burrows said. “We were over budget in December…we based those costs on historical averages and we’ve had such mild winters for the last few years.”
“This year, our budget just got drilled,” he said. “And now we’re going to have to take another significant hit doing this special election.”
Burrows said the commission is reaching out to its state legislators in hopes of encouraging them to support the mail ballot option.
Plettenberg said it’s important for people to remember the proposed legislation is entirely focused on this one special election.
“We had unanimous support for the resolution from our commission,” she said. “They are all Republicans. By the way, I am one, too.”
Plettenberg said she’s heard from a lot of “average voters” too.
“Mostly they stop by the front counter or see me in the grocery store,” she said. “They tell me they don’t understand why the Legislature is opposed to this and ask if they can do anything to help.”