7:30 a.m.: There's a light at the end of the tunnel for the final vote tally in Yellowstone County from Tuesday's general election, but it could take most of Thursday to get there.
"We hope to have everything done by the end of business hours today," said Bret Rutherford, Yellowstone County elections administrator.
After more than 48 hours at MetraPark's Montana Pavilion, election officials were still counting votes. Due in large part to technical difficulties with the county's three vote-counting machines, about 30,000 absentee ballots remained uncounted at the beginning of Wednesday morning.
But by early Thursday, officials had managed to make it through a large chunk of the waiting ballots. Rutherford estimated that by 3 a.m., 23,000 had been fully counted.
Upon realizing that the counting would take much longer than expected, Vote counters initially focused on getting through the first sheet -- out of two -- of the ballots, which contained the election races.
All of those -- except a handful that, for one reason or another, couldn't be read by the machines -- have been counted. They're now working on tallying the second sheets, which include referendums and initiatives.
Initially, the machines jammed every time an absentee ballot went through because they weren't able to handle the folds in the paper. A tech support specialist arrived early Wednesday morning and was able to improve efficiency a bit, to where they could count about five ballots at a time and then reset the machine before it jammed.
At 2 a.m. Thursday, another tech specialist arrived from Western Montana and is staying on scene to help troubleshoot the problems, something Rutherford said is helping.
"They're working a lot better now," he said Thursday morning.
As the final tally draws near, Rutherford said he thinks the number of people voting in the county will be right around 70,000, a little below the record of 71,200 set in 2008.
About 160 people total worked at the Montana Pavilion for the elections, whether it was helping people register or getting them into the booths to vote.
A small number of them have also been working around the clock since Tuesday morning to get the votes counted and dealing with the vote-counting issues.
"They've been doing a good job," Rutherford said. "They're worn out and it took a lot longer than expected, but they've done well."
Six people were at the Montana Pavilion counting until the Thursday morning hours. Rutherford sent them home for a few hours to shower and take a nap. At 7 a.m., he and one other person remained on scene counting and he expected the rest to return by late morning.
Rutherford said he'd been at MetraPark since long before the polls opened on Tuesday morning, more than 48 hours.
While there's still work to do at MetraPark, discussions have already started on how to streamline the process, including on how to deal with waits of as long as five hours to register to vote on Election Day.
"I've already been thinking of ways we can improve that," Rutherford said.
OVERNIGHT REPORT: While votes were still being tabulated in Yellowstone County late into the night Wednesday, elected officials, political groups and elections administrators had already been talking about how to make future balloting go more quickly and smoothly.
Bret Rutherford, elections administrator for Yellowstone County, arrived at the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark since 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, and he was still running paper ballots through the vote-counting machines late Wednesday night, 38 hours later.
He said the main problems in Yellowstone County were the difficulty of running folded absentee ballots through the machines — this a day after dealing with a flood of people registering to vote on Election Day. Late Wednesday, he said a technician was due to arrive at 1 a.m. Thursday to work on the machines, which were jamming every three or four ballot pages.
As of 11 p.m. Wednesday, the county had processed about 70,000 ballots.
"The machines haven't been working as efficiently as they are supposed to, which has been frustrating to say the least," Rutherford said late Wednesday. "But we are getting through it."
Five volunteers were working through the night, rotating between taking naps and counting ballots.
As many as 800 people registered at the Montana Pavilion on Tuesday, with the last finishing up just after midnight. Some waited as long as five hours to complete registration and voting.
Political party observers and elected officials were discussing all sorts of possible fixes before the next election, including more staffing on Election Day, earlier cutoffs of late registration, more time to process and flatten absentee ballots and renewed attempts to educate voters about early registration.
Newly re-elected Secretary of State Linda McCulloch wasn't even sure that all the so-called problems were worrisome, particularly the huge influx of last-minute registrants.
"I think it's something to celebrate," she said.
In addition to the large numbers of absentee ballots that had to be processed, McCulloch said, there was also the three-page ballot, so officials were anticipating a long night of vote-counting no matter what.
"We expected different counties to be counting this morning even if there were no glitches," she said Wednesday.
In addition to the long count in Yellowstone County, Gallatin County didn't have all its votes counted until noon, Missoula and Glacier counties didn't finish until mid-afternoon, and Flathead and Ravalli counties were still wrapping up later in the day, McCulloch said.
At MetraPark, where all Billings voters who live within the boundaries of School District 2 cast ballots on Election Day, about 30,000 of the roughly 56,000 absentee ballots returned in the county were still uncounted late Wednesday afternoon. The tabulation was expected to stretch into the evening, nearly 24 hours after the general election polls closed.
Rutherford said that at about midnight on election night, the three machines in the Montana Pavilion began jamming each time an absentee ballot went through.
The machines are designed to read flat, unfolded ballots, but most of the ballots were folded to be mailed in by voters.
Rutherford called the machine's manufacturer, and a worker arrived at about 8 a.m. to fix the problem. The tech support specialist's efforts appear to have helped.
"They're running much better now," Rutherford said.
Adding to the confusion on election night, the secretary of state's office called Rutherford about 8:30 p.m. and told him not to release any more results until all the late registrants had completed voting.
Rutherford said the call was made by elections deputy Lisa Kimmet, whose concern was that people standing in line with smartphones shouldn't be reading results before voting.
But McCulloch said Wednesday that the only concern was getting those people registered without diverting resources to tallying votes. As a result, Yellowstone County released a small number of results shortly after the polls closed at 8, and then not again until after midnight.
Rep. Tom McGillvray, R-Billings, county campaign chairman for GOP governor candidate Rick Hill, was observing the vote-counting Wednesday afternoon. He said the crush of Election Day voter registration makes it difficult "to have a fair, orderly election."
The 2011 Legislature passed a bill ending registration on the Friday before Election Day, he said, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed it.
Joe Raffiani, chairman of the Yellowstone County Democrats, said reducing access to the polls isn't the answer.
"Democracy is always better when more of the people who have a stake in the election participate in the election," he said.
He said there are "multiple possible solutions," one of which is mounting a better public education campaign to inform voters about the voting process and early registration.
Rutherford said he would like to see an all-mail ballot, which has already been used in school and city elections.
"I would rather see consistency across all the elections," he said.
Joe Bailey, a vice chairman of the Yellowstone County Republicans, said if there is going to be late registration, "we've got to be prepared for far more staff on election night."
He also mentioned the possibility of opening a second polling location, or cutting off voting at 10 p.m., regardless of how many people are still in line.
"Keeping the polls open till 12:30 at night doesn't seem like a good solution," he said.
Rutherford said assigning more people to taking late registrations would be problematic. As it is, he said, he hired six extra workers for that and had them in the elections office for three weeks before Election Day, assisting with registrations and training them in procedures.
With only four work stations in the elections office at the county courthouse, he said, he doesn't see how he could train any additional workers.
McCulloch pointed to one more small fix. She said state elections officials had asked to be allowed to open absentee ballots three days before the election, to get them stacked and compressed so they'd go through the vote-counting machines more smoothly.
The Legislature passed a bill but cut back the preparation to one day. McCulloch said it may be time to go back to the original request.
Yellowstone County commissioners Bill Kennedy and John Ostlund said they will sit down with Rutherford and other county officials to review the election and look for ways to make improvements.
Both said they heard as many complaints about traffic jams at MetraPark as they did about delays in voting or counting votes.
Despite some frustrations on Election Day, Ostlund said, he's not sure any big changes are needed.
"I think the problems are probably pretty easily resolvable," he said.