Gazette opinion: Bill would stop waste of counties’ time, money

2013-02-05T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Bill would stop waste of counties’ time, money The Billings Gazette
February 05, 2013 12:00 am

The 2013 Legislature ought allow counties’ “permanent” absentee voter lists to really be permanent.

Montana law provides that voters can request that they receive mailed, absentee ballots for all elections. However, that request must be renewed annually.

Last week, the Yellowstone County elections office mailed out about 60,000 notices — one to each person on the 2012 absentee list. Postage alone for that mailing cost $12,000, not including paper or labor, or return postage paid by voters. Each voter who wants to get all mailed ballots this year must check a box, sign and return the request form to the elections office.

Each year about 80 percent of voters who get those confirmation letters respond saying they want to keep getting mailed absentee ballots, according to Bret Rutherford, county elections administrator.

The 20 percent who don’t respond include folks who thought they were already on the list and didn’t need to send in the form again (although the form says they have to send it in). The elections staff hears from these voters closer to elections when they call to say they haven’t gotten the absentee ballot they expected.

In Billings, this annual reconfirmation is an even bigger waste of time because the school board elections in May and the City Council elections this fall will be conducted by all mail ballot. All eligible voters will get an absentee ballot anyway.

There is a remedy for this wasteful statutory requirement. Last week, the draft of LC0496 was completed at the request of Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman. The bill would add an option to the standard Montana absentee ballot application, so the voter could request: “an absentee ballot to be mailed to me for as long as I reside at the address listed.”

Perennial absentee list

A voter would be removed from the proposed “perennial absentee ballot list” upon written request to his county elections office.

If voters move, the elections office will know because, ballots cannot be forwarded and will come back to the office, Rutherford said. In that case, the office then sends a forwardable notice to the voter, advising him how to get a ballot.

This bill was requested by the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders and Election Administrators. Some clerks in smaller population counties want to send out annual confirmations, so LC0496 allows that option.

Where tens of thousands of notices would be required, and experience has shown that 8 of 10 will ask to stay on the list, it makes sense to give voters the option of stating their desire to stay on the list permanently.

Months of data re-entry

Finally, Rutherford notes that under present law requiring annual renewals, his office must re-enter all voter absentee list data annually because all the data disappears from the state voter data base on Feb. 1. Four Yellowstone County elections employees spend three months re-entering data as voter absentee list requests come back. If the list were permanent, the data wouldn’t have to be deleted or re-entered.

We call on Yellowstone County lawmakers to urge Rep. Washburn to introduce this bill soon and to support it with their votes.

There are dozens of controversial elections bills this session. LC0496 shouldn’t be controversial; it’s simply common sense.

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

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