HELENA — A county commissioner who drove more than 400 miles to testify told lawmakers Thursday a vote-by-mail election to fill Montana’s vacant U.S. House seat would save his rural county money and alleviate concerns over a lack of election judges.

“It’s convenient for people and saving us a pile of money,” said Gary MacDonald, a commissioner for Roosevelt County, told the House Judiciary Committee in a hearing where feelings ran so hot that the room briefly was cleared.

How Montana conducts its election to replace former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, who resigned at the start of the year to become Secretary of the Interior, has come under the national spotlight after Gov. Steve Bullock set the election for May 25.

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, brought a bill to conduct the election by mail in an effort to save counties money. His proposal would allow counties to automatically send absentee ballots to all registered voters. Ballots could still be cast at the county courthouse in the 29 days leading up to the election as well as on Election Day. Satellite offices on reservations would remain open. 

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Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) introduces Senate Bill 305

Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, introduces Senate Bill 305, which provides all mail-in ballots for the special election on May 25.

Montana Republican Party chairman and state Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, sent a letter to party members last month saying a mail-in election would "give the Democrats an inherent advantage."

Essmann’s letter brought Montana under the national spotlight, with a spot on the Rachel Maddow Show featuring the state.

Thursday’s hearing on the bill went off the rails before proponents could finish testifying.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, limited the time for testimony as is allowed by legislative rules. When that passed, he directed the remaining supporters of SB305 to simply state their name and hometown for the record.

But when Carole Mackin of Helena stepped to the lectern, she read her testimony, too. Doane gaveled her down. She refused to leave unless escorted out, saying a police officer would have to remove her. Dozens of people in the hallway crowded a TV monitor showing the room a few feet away.

Doane asked people to clear the room and Mackin held her ground until the officer walked her to the door. When she stepped into the hallway, supporters cheered.

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Carole Mackin of Helena stands her ground at the lectern Thursday morning as the hearing room was emptied.

As Doane chastised committee members for encouraging the interruptions, supporters — some lifting signs — started to chant “SB305. Keep it alive.” They stopped under direction from a sergeant at arms.

Several people who came to testify were county commissioners from around the state and told the committee how long they had traveled to Helena, with some driving several hours and hundreds of miles like MacDonald.

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Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, made a motion Thursday morning to extend time

Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, made a motion Thursday morning to extend time so more people could testify on SB 305, which would allow counties the option of conducting the upcoming special election by absentee mail ballots. It was shot down on a party-line vote of the House Judiciary Committee.

Before the committee had stalled, Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, called for a vote to allow for more time for testimony, but the committee voted it down on party lines. Hill Smith was also not allowed to ask a final question of a proponent of the bill before the committee ended.

Democrats from the committee have spoken out against time limits on testimony over the last couple months, although Hill Smith's motion was the first effort to extend speaking time. She accused Doane of scheduling several controversial bills on the same day as a way to limit time for testimony. 

Mackin, standing in the hallway, said she understands the need for legislative rules that allow committee chairs to set time limits on testimony, but said it should be "used judiciously," unlike the current common practice. 

Asked when it would be appropriate to cut off public testimony, she said with a chuckle: "When they don't have me in front of them."

Mackin, a writer and retired geochemist who has worked as an election judge, has testified frequently before the Legislature on bills about the election process. She planned to ask the committee to support the bill as something that "holds down the cost of government."

Members of the public were later let back in to finish testimony. Most did as directed, simply stating their name and hometown, though Eric Stern, a chief adviser to Gov. Steve Bullock, briefly violated Doane's order to say, "Some of these people drove three or four hours. It's outrageous."

The committee took no action on the bill Thursday. Proponents included county commissioners who said they were struggling to afford the election on tight budgets and would struggle to find polling places and election judges.

Blaine County Commissioner Frank DePriest said his county has cut $600,000 out of its budget this year and froze wages. He said they anticipate spending $20,000 on the election but voting by mail could save $8,000 to $10,000.

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who took office in January, took his first public position on the bill Thursday in opposing it. He argued a vote-by-mail election would open Montana up to accusations of fraud and that the tight timeline of the election makes it difficult.

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Secretary of State Corey Stapleton opposed SB 305, telling the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday that it would open up the state to lawsuits and that the existing election system works well.

“We are not here to run the cheapest elections. We are here to run the best elections," he said. "The whole country is watching Montana run our special election and you would think from the line of proponents to the bill we can't live without this idea we’ve never done before. Let's run an election the same as we did in November."

Several people who live on Montana's Indian reservations said the bill could limit their access to voting.

George Real Bird III, a Big Horn County commissioner and Crow tribal member, said his community would not have as good access to voting if the election was held by mail.

"We don't have mailboxes at our homes like many of you do in Billings or Missoula. My biggest question was how am I going to get the most people to the polls in my area and for me that's a poll(ing place)."

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Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good Geise (R) argues in favor of Senate Bill 305 Thursday morning saying it aligns with Republican Party values.

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.