Gazette opinion: Vote-by-mail bill offers better plan for state elections

2011-01-09T00:10:00Z 2011-01-09T07:27:42Z Gazette opinion: Vote-by-mail bill offers better plan for state elections The Billings Gazette
January 09, 2011 12:10 am

Montana lawmakers can increase voter participation and decrease taxpayer expense by supporting House Bill 130.

This legislation is the result of months of work by Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat, and a working group of county election officials of both parties as well as representatives of tribal governments, disabled Montanans and other groups advocating voter rights.

“This is the way good legislation should come about, with people who don't necessarily agree sitting down together to discuss and find compromise,” McCulloch said last week.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, a former Sanders County clerk and recorder.

“With HB130, county elections administrators have the oversight to protect the integrity of Montana elections efficiently and effectively,” Ingraham said in press release last week. “Counties have used vote-by-mail successfully for more than 10 years. It's time to expand it statewide.”

Brett Rutherford, Yellowstone County elections administrator, supports the all-mail ballot legislation.

He says having the same rules for all elections will eliminate voter confusion that resulted from laws that required voters to request mail ballots again and again. Yellowstone County had about 49,000 voters on its “permanent absentee” list recently, but the law still requires the county to mail out cards annually asking whether each voter wants absentee ballots that year.

Another source of voter confusion is that Montana law currently requires polling places for elections in which there are candidates for Congress or U.S. president. In Yellowstone County for the past several years, other elections have used all-mail ballots. So some people expected to automatically receive mail ballots for last year's primary and general election. By law, voters needed to request an absentee ballot to get one for those June and November elections.

House Bill 130 would save Yellowstone County on postage because all voters would get mail ballots without the county first mailing cards to ask if they want a mail ballot, Rutherford said.

Statewide, the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders estimates that HB130 would save county governments $2 million in election expenses every two years. Much of the savings would result because fewer workers would have to be hired and trained for Election Day.

More importantly, mail ballots have been shown to increase voter participation. That's been true in Oregon where vote-by-mail has been statewide for a decade. In Billings and Yellowstone County elections, more ballots have been cast in all-mail elections than were cast in comparable elections when polls were open.

HB130 requires all counties to write and publicize election plans annually. A public hearing would have to be held on the election plan and the locations of all ballot drop boxes and other places to deposit ballots would have to be publicized more than a month in advance of the election.

HB130 would not change Montana's late voter registration law, which allows eligible voters to register and vote any day, including Election Day.

If HB130 becomes law, Rutherford expects that Yellowstone County will continue to use Bench Elementary, Riverside Middle School and Faith Evangelical Church as “staffed places of deposit” on Election Day. Additional Election Day places for returning ballots will probably be designated, including one in Laurel. All these ballot return sites would be staffed with election judges and have Automark voting machines available for visually impaired voters.

Secure ballot drop-off boxes would be available on college campuses and in other locations in Billings and in small communities throughout the county, Rutherford said.

“We're almost an all-mail county now because so many of our voters choose absentee ballots,” Rutherford said. In November, 74.1 percent of Yellowstone County ballots cast were sent to voters by mail.

The people of Yellowstone County have already voted on this issue. They chose mail ballots. We call on Yellowstone County lawmakers to see that their constituents' wishes are carried out by enacting the well-researched, carefully crafted vote-by-mail process in HB130.

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

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