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Don Roberts and attorney Tom Towe, right, watch as commissioners Jim Reno, John Ostlund, and Clerk and Recorder Jeff Martin and Election Administrator Bret Rutherford count ballots Monday morning. Roberts has requested the recount in his race against Margie MacDonald. 

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Democratic Sen. Margie MacDonald’s legislative victory in South Billings was confirmed by recount Monday.

MacDonald won the race for Senate District 26 by 19 votes in a hand count as the margin slipped from 24. She lost one vote in the balance, while Republican Don Roberts picked up four votes.

Roberts asked for the recount, which cost him $1,100.

Roberts asked for the recount after considering the outcomes of the two House districts included in SD 26. Each of Montana’s 50 Senate districts comprise two House districts. In SD 26, both of the House districts were easily won by Republicans.

“To have two Republican legislators win below and have the difference above it makes you just kind of wonder,” Roberts said after the five-hour recount. “And when you look at a lot of the non-voted votes, there were a lot of those where they voted Republican in the House, but didn’t vote in the Senate.”

Roberts said he has other things to do and wouldn’t challenge MacDonald when her term ends in four years.

The final tally was 3,828 for MacDonald and 3,809 for Roberts. One ballot MacDonald had initially won was thrown out because it wasn’t filled out correctly. The voter wrote in the names of preferred candidates but didn’t fill in the circle beside the candidate’s name.

MacDonald said after the recount that the difference from the original tally and subsequent recount was due to human error and not because the ballot counting machines miscounted. Precinct by precinct, the ballots went minus one for MacDonald, plus one for Roberts, with a couple of exceptions.

“We have a pretty right ship in the counting office. There’s a couple of those precincts that we would have challenged if it changed the outcome because what I think happens when you see a plus one and a minus one, basically somebody missed a ballot,” MacDonald said.

Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford said the outcome would likely change again in another recount because of human error.

SD 26 was the only legislative seat in Montana up for a recount this year. MacDonald is the only Democratic senator sharing turf with two Republican representatives. Two years ago, MacDonald held on to win another recount race in House District 51, which is one of the House districts within SD 26.

Recounts rarely change an election outcome. The recount board was composed of commissioners John Ostlund and Jim Reno and Clerk and Recorder Jeff Martin. Reno counted the ballots aloud and then handed the Roberts ballots to Martin and the MacDonald ones to Reno.

Roberts sat directly in front of Ostlund during the recount. Attorney Tom Towe flanked Roberts on MacDonald’s behalf, occasionally stopping the count to scrutinize a ballot.

“Tom, you know what they say: ‘One lawyer in a small town will starve to death, but two can make a good living,’” Ostlund said.

Yellowstone County has had a recount in a legislative district in every federal election except in 2012, Rutherford said. “We are old pros at this."

Roberts paid for the recount because the victory margin percentage was outside the .25 percent range for a free recount.

The $1,100 the county charged Roberts is based on an hourly rate for salaries of county officials doing the recount and a five-hour recount.


Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.