Next week in Helena, Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch will oversee the testing of a new, upgraded vote counting machine. Yellowstone County elections administrator Bret Rutherford will be on hand to see if this machine overcomes snafus that plagued the model used in Billings last November.
With about 140,000 pieces of paper to count, including more than 112,000 pages that had been folded for mailing, the machines at times jammed on every folded page and stopped whenever they detected an error, such as an extra mark on a ballot.
As a result, counting ballots for the Nov. 6 election took days, instead of hours.
The new models to be tested Feb. 1 in Helena are being promoted for better handling of folded ballots and faster, more efficient counting.
Under Montana law, a vote counting machine must pass tests and be certified by the secretary of state before it can be used in Montana elections.
As the Legislature starts considering a truckload of election legislation, let’s remember that some of the most critical election reforms will depend on other units of government.
More ballot prep time
The slow vote counting in Montana’s most populous county was an equipment deficiency, greatly compounded by lack of tech support on Election Day and afterward.
There is, however, one thing the Legislature should do to facilitate faster vote counting: Change the law to allow county election officials to start preparing ballots for counting at least three days before Election Day. The 2011 Legislature turned down a similar request for no good reason.
In Yellowstone County, parking and traffic flow at MetraPark was a frustration for the thousands of Billings voters who cast ballots at the consolidated polling place on Election Day. The County Commission has hired a consultant to study the traffic issues and make recommendations for improvements that will not only help on the next Election Day, but at any event that brings a big crowd to MetraPark. Fairgrounds traffic flow is a local issue that needs to be solved locally.
Election Day registration
The third big headache of Election Day was the hourslong line for nearly 800 Yellowstone County residents who registered and voted that day.
Some public elected officials have criticized Election Day registrants for exercising their right to vote. In fact, those who stood for four or five hours to cast their ballots demonstrated how important that right is to them and how important it should be to the rest of us.
Among the Election Day registrants in Yellowstone County, 316 already were registered to vote in Montana, but had moved, according to Rutherford. Under state law, they could have returned to their old polling place — across the state or across the county, but they chose to stay to vote in Billings and stood in line. The rest of the 800 were folks who had never registered or whose registration had been canceled because they hadn’t voted in at least six years.
Yellowstone County had eight computers for election judges to register voters — twice as many as at the 2008 General Election, but twice as many people showed up to register.
A lesson from Nov. 6, 2012, is to substantially increase registration staff for the next presidential election. That will cost the county, but election expenses were significantly reduced with the consolidation of all Billings polling places at MetraPark. In 2008, the county paid about 400 general election judges; in 2012, the total was about 225.
Meanwhile in Helena, a bill has been proposed to end Election Day registration. Lawmakers backing this bill say voters ought to be responsible for registering before Election Day.
Such a change would effectively keep thousands of Montanans from voting. That would be wrong.
As the Yellowstone County data indicates, about 40 percent of Election Day registrants thought they were registered; they weren’t because they had moved. Additionally, some voters thought they had registered when they got their driver’s license, but they weren’t. These Montanans as well as those who chose to register on Election Day are entitled to exercise their right to vote in this great state.