HELENA — Montana county election officials on Monday will mail nearly 170,000 absentee ballots to voters across the state for the June 5 primary election.
That total amounts to slightly more than one-quarter of the 638,500 total registered Montana voters, as of late last week.
It's also is a record number of absentee ballots distributed for a primary election statewide, said Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, the state's chief election official.
The 2012 total tops the estimated 143,000 absentee ballots sent out before the June 2010 off-year primary and the more than 109,500 shipped out before the June 2008 primary, which like this year was a presidential election year.
"We are ready to roll," McCulloch said.
She said it's the beginning of the process where Montanans decide which candidates from the primaries they want to advance to the November election.
Campaigns for the top-of-the-ticket state political offices are likely to time some of their advertising, direct mail and phone calls to coincide with when Montanans receive their absentee ballots.
The absentee numbers have grown steadily every election since passage of a 2003 law that no longer required voters to have an excuse — such being out of town — to vote absentee.
People now may sign up for the annual absentee list to have ballots automatically mailed to them for to apply for them for a single election. Or they can go to polling places on Election Day and cast their votes the traditional way.
"I don't care how people vote," McCulloch said. "I just want them to vote. It's important that people vote in a way that's important to them."
Monday also is the close of the regular voter registration period. Anyone who wants to register from Tuesday on must do it at the county election office or another office designated by the county election administrator, McCulloch said. People can register to vote up right up through Election Day.
Around the state, local election officials were getting ready to mail their thousands of absentee ballots.
"It's a busy time of the year for us, to put it bluntly," said Bret Rutherford, election administrator for Yellowstone County.
He said the county has already mailed or will mail just under 43,000 ballots to members of the military and other voters by Monday. Some 600 ballots to military personnel went out April 19.
"That's way more than ever," Rutherford said of the totals. In past primaries, the total votes cast didn't exceed a total of 37,000 votes, counting both absentee and those cast at polling places, he said.
He estimates that 85 percent to 90 percent of the people who received absentee ballots will vote and send them back.
"We should easily have a record turnout in the primary," Rutherford said.
Voting by absentee ballot has grown dramatically since people no longer had to state a reason for it and after Yellowstone County consolidated its polling places, he said. In notifying voters of the reduced number of polling places, the office also included instructions on absentee balloting.
"It's just exploded since then on," Rutherford said. "It's a great program. You get the ballot, and you can research who's on the ballot."
As for the election office, he said,"It's actually easier on us to do absentees because we can plan for it a lot more. The ballots come back over a 29-day period, rather on Election Day."
In Missoula County, more than 22,000 absentee ballots will be mailed, said Vickie Zeier, county clerk and recorder and treasurer.
That's also a primary record and approaching the 29,000 absentee ballots mailed in the 2008 general election, Zeier said.
"It's doubled in four years for the primary," she said of the absentee ballot totals. "I expect my general to do the same thing, especially if it's a two-page ballot, with a lot of ballot issues."
Voters see absentee voting as a convenience, she said, and they have time to study the ballot.
In Lewis and Clark County, close to 9,000 absentee ballots have been stuffed and ready to be mailed, said Paulette DeHart, county treasurer and clerk and recorder. They are in post office boxes, which are stacked on shelves, ready to be mailed Monday.
That, too, is a primary record for total absentee ballots, she said.
"It just keeps growing," DeHart said of the annual absentee ballots. "More and more people opt into that option. I just think voters are getting more and more aware it's an option."
She reminded Helena-area voters to allow a couple of days for their ballot to be returned by mail to the office because mail to Helena is now processed in Great Falls instead of locally.
Also, DeHart said if absentee voters make a mistake, change their mind or spill coffee on their ballot before they send them back, they may request a replacement ballot from the county election office.
In Silver Bow County, election officials will be mailing close to 3,700 absentee ballots on Monday, said Sally Hollis, clerk and recorder and election administrator.
That's more than the county sent in either the 2010 primary or general election, she said. Hollis estimated that 7,000 to 10,000 absentee ballots will be sent out for the November election this year because it's a presidential election.
"More and more elderly people are utilizing it more," Hollis said. "Absentees give you time to stay at home and look at the candidates and make your decisions at your convenience."
McCulloch provided these totals for absentee ballots for Montana's other three most populous counties: Cascade, 21,993; Flathead, 11,206; and Gallatin, 21,611.