Yellowstone County voting snafus get a 2nd look

2012-11-13T17:30:00Z 2014-06-07T22:54:51Z Yellowstone County voting snafus get a 2nd lookBy CLAIR JOHNSON cjohnson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

“Obviously, we had some problems election night,” said Bret Rutherford, Yellowstone County’s election administrator, on Tuesday.

Rutherford, looking refreshed after a general election in which it took three days to tally 70,295 votes, met with county commissioners to review what went wrong and ways to make improvements.

“I want to look at the whole thing from top to bottom,” Rutherford said.

And, it seemed everything was on the table -- from all-mail elections, more election staff and more polling places to traffic control at MetraPark.

“Whatever we need to do so no one leaves the polling place and says, ‘I can’t vote,’” said Commissioner Bill Kennedy, a Democrat who was re-elected to a fourth term.

Rutherford told commissioners he will prepare a report for the commission on what went wrong and will make recommendations for improvements.

Some of the problems can be fixed by the county, while others may require legislative changes, county officials said.

The Nov. 6 general election in Yellowstone County was marked by a crush of late registrations that triggered long lines at MetraPark’s Montana Pavilion, traffic jams at MetraPark, which was the polling place for all city voters who live within School District 2’s elementary school boundaries, and vote-counting machines that kept jamming on the folds in absentee ballots.

A record number of people in Yellowstone County voted absentee this year – approximately 56,000 voters, or 79 percent of the 70,295 ballots cast, used absentee ballots. Overall voter turnout in the county was about 73 percent.

Although many people registered to vote ahead of the election, some waited until Election Day.

“That big, long monster line was late registration,” Rutherford said.

Registering to vote takes 10 to 15 minutes and requires staff trained in the state’s computer voter registration program to complete the process, Rutherford said.

The county had six computer terminals, about double what it used in 2008, when it registered about 600 people on Election Day, he said. Last Tuesday, the county registered about 800 people at MetraPark, he said.

Rutherford said the county could train more people to register voters to make the line move faster.

Commission Chairman John Ostlund said there should be more public outreach to encourage early registration.

The state, Kennedy said, should consider going to an all-mail election like Oregon, where he said voter turnout is about 80 percent.

While Commissioner Jim Reno liked Kennedy’s all-mail election suggestion, he also criticized voters who registered late.

Noting the recent Veterans Day holiday and how veterans have fought and died for the right to vote, Reno said showing up late to register shows disrespect.

“You’d have to be under a rock” not to know there was a general election last Tuesday, he said.

“But that’s a person’s right to vote,” Kennedy responded.

The commissioners agreed that the election office was understaffed and needed a bigger budget to be able to hire more people during elections.

County officials also discussed ways to prevent ballots from jamming in the counting machines, which caused counting to drag on for three days.

Mailing flat ballots instead of folding them may be an option but would be expensive, Rutherford said. The county already pays the difference on absentee ballots mailed in with inadequate postage.

To speed election results, Kennedy suggested being able to start counting absentee ballots several days before Election Day instead starting the morning of Election Day. Early counting would require a change in state law.

Rutherford also said he had problems getting help from the vendor when the machines kept jamming on folds in the paper ballots. Officials considered hiring technical support to be present for vote-counting from start to finish.

Traffic jams in MetraPark’s lower lot caused another election night migraine.

Motorists had trouble finding parking spaces, and traffic backed up as vehicles tried to leave MetraPark by turning left onto the new Bench Boulevard connector to get to Sixth Avenue North.

“We failed on that,” Ostlund said.

Commissioners and Rutherford also said they would consider returning to more polling places around the city instead of consolidating them at MetraPark.

They also discussed having traffic leave MetraPark with a right turn only onto Bench Boulevard and better traffic control and coordination with MetraPark staff during peak times.

For all the problems, the commissioners praised Rutherford and his staff.

“You and your crew did a tremendous job,” Kennedy said. “We have a lot of glitches and bumps we have to fix,” he added.

Later Tuesday, Rutherford and his staff were back counting provisional ballots from the election to verify whether they will be included.

The canvassing of election results has been moved up from Nov. 20 to Friday at 10 a.m. in the commissioners’ board room. The canvass is to finalize the results and is open to the public.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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