HELENA — The secretary of state, a Democrat, is working with a Republican lawmaker to switch the state over to mail ballots for all elections.
Secretary of State Linda McCulloch say counties that run polling places and elections could save more than $2 million each election cycle — while increasing voter turnout.
Many voters currently mail ballots in through the absentee ballot process. But election officials must still staff and open polling places for others.
Past efforts at mail ballots have failed, sometimes with Republican opposition and other times due to Democratic opposition. McCulloch says the revamped proposal is far more thorough.
Rep. Pat Ingraham of Thompson Falls will pitch the bill to fellow lawmakers.
HELENA - Montana lawmakers will be asked to approve a bill with bipartisan support that would set up vote-by-mail elections for all federal, state and local elections in Montana in 2012, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said Wednesday.
"Vote-by-mail elections increase voter participation, enhance voter protection and save taxpayer money," said McCulloch, a Democrat and the state's chief election officer.
House Bill 130 is the product of a working group commissioned by McCulloch that represented a variety of organizations and county governments.
Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, a former county clerk and election administrator, is sponsoring the bill.
"I'm excited to be part of this," Ingraham said. "Elections hold a very special place in my heart. The election process is extremely important to people."
She noted that the state Republican Party platform supports vote-by-mail. Republicans control the House, 68-32, and the Senate, 28-22.
The Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders estimates that expanding vote-by-mail could save counties more than $2 million every election cycle. It would eliminate the need for county polling places and poll workers. Missoula County, for example, now has to hire 750 election judges for elections under the current system, McCulloch said.
She and two staff members also recently traveled to Oregon, a vote-by-mail state, to visit with election officials, leaders of both major political parties, a tribal leader and other officials. She said vote-by-mail is highly popular in Oregon since it was first used in 1998. Voter turnout in Oregon, which used to be mirror Montana's, now regularly exceeds this state's voter participation rate.
In 2009, the Montana Legislature killed an attempt to allow certain counties to go to vote-by-mail as a pilot project.
McCulloch said she believes the chances of the 2011 bill passing are better because of the bipartisan work and compromises reached by the working group.
Besides McCulloch, others on the working group were representatives of the Montana League of Rural Voters, Montana Disability Rights, Montana Conservation Voters, Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, Forward Montana, Montana Women Vote and Montana's sovereign Indian nations. Election administrators participating were from Blaine, Gallatin, Missoula, Pondera and Yellowstone counties.
Under the 2011 bill, mail ballots would be used in all federal, state and local elections in Montana starting next year, but would be optional for school districts.
Under the proposal, Montana voters would have more ways to cast their votes, McCulloch said. Ballots could be mailed back, dropped off at drop sites up to 25 days before Election Day, returned to staffed places of deposit on Election Day, delivered to the county election office or voted in person at a county election office.
The bill would require counties to use the U.S. Postal Service national change of address service at least annually to update mailing addresses and maintain their national voter registration act. Counties would be required to draft an annual plan for mail ballot elections that gives the public 30 days to comment and requires a public hearing.
Counties would be required to notify voters on the inactive list by mail that they will not receive ballots unless they update their addresses, or let local election administrators that their addresses haven't changed.
The bill would require a minimum number of staffed places where ballots could be deposited on Election Day, drop boxes for 25 days and voting booths at election offices for 25 days.
It would specify that all ballots, except for those mailed to absent military and overseas voters, would be mailed 25 days before an election.