Absentee Ballots

Nancy Curriden prepares absentee ballots for mailing in October at the Yellowstone County Courthouse.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

After Greg Gianforte, the Republican candidate to fill Montana's lone U.S. House seat, was cited Wednesday night for assaulting a reporter, there may be some early voters wondering if they could have a do-over.

Montana does not allow early absentee voters to change their vote, according to the Montana Secretary of State. But a few states do allow changes, and the issue could get a look from Montana lawmakers in the future. 

In Montana, an absentee ballot is considered voted when it is received by the county election office, said Derek J. Oestreicher, director of elections and voter services at the Secretary of State's office. Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania allow at least some degree of changes to early votes. 

Gianforte, a Bozeman businessman, is running against Democrat Rob Quist, a musician from Creston, and Libertarian Mark Wicks, an Inverness rancher. Polls opened at 8 a.m. Thursday and closed at 8 p.m.

About 37 percent of registered voters had already sent in absentee ballots by Wednesday night, when Gianforte allegedly "body-slammed" Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian, during a campaign event in Bozeman. Jacobs was asking Gianforte questions about the Congressional Budget Office's scoring of the Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Audio recorded by Jacobs captured a violent encounter.

"I'm sick and tired of you guys," Gianforte yelled at one point, followed by "Get the hell out of here." Jacobs said Gianforte shoved him and broke his glasses. A Fox News reporter who witnessed the altercation reported "Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him" and "then began punching the man."

Kenneth Mayer, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, said the early voting provision hadn't gotten much attention in his roughly 30 years of watching Wisconsin politics. 

“I recall the point being raised, but I don’t think that I recall any sort of similarly dramatic events,” he said. 

A quick spotlight flashed over the topic when President Donald Trump, while campaigning in November, suggested that voters could change votes cast early if they have "buyer's remorse." However, that didn't prompt a flood of canceled ballots in Wisconsin. 

Wisconsin voters have the opportunity to cancel already-cast ballots at their polling places and fill out a new one. In the presidential election, about 3,000 voters canceled ballots, about 0.1 percent of people who voted in the election. And there's no data that zeroes in on why voters canceled their ballots; it's not accurate to assume that all did because they changed their mind about a candidate or issue.  

“We just don’t have that level of detail,” said Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney. 

The issue could break down on party lines in Montana's legislature. 

“I think if you’ve cast your vote you’ve cast your vote,” said Montana Senate President Scott Sales, a Bozeman Republican. “I wouldn’t be in favor of (changing) it.”

Sen. Mary McNally, a Billings Democrat, said that she thought the incident could spark conversation. 

“Given what’s happened, I think it would be worth at least looking at,” she said. “With early voting, those ballots do go out pretty early, and this incident aside, things do change.”

Election procedure was already under scrutiny in Montana, as Democrats proposed using mail ballots for the House race. Republicans generally opposed the idea, and same-day polling prevailed. Absentee voting still allows voters who are signed up to vote by mail ahead of election day.

“The events of yesterday are more dramatic, but this is always an issue with early voting,” Mayer said. “The key here is you have this sort of dramatic event less than 24 hours before the polls open on election day. The people who have already cast their ballot are unable to change their vote.”

“That’s been the problem all the way along with this idea of early voting and why I’ve never been a big advocate of it,” Sales said. “I think our clerks and recorders and elections people have a tough job right now, and it would make it that much more difficult.”

Nationally, there's been little impetus to allow ballot changes, even after presidential election attention on the issue. 

"I've heard no discussion of this," said Paul Gronke, a professor at Reed College in Portland who runs the Early Voting Information Center. Instead, general trends have emphasized increasing early voting options. 

If a voter who already cast an absentee ballot tried to show up at the polls Thursday, election workers' voting rolls would show the person as already having voted. Oestreicher described Thursday morning what would happen if a person shows up to change their vote, but their absentee ballot had not yet been received by the county.

"It is theoretically possible, but not pragmatic or practical, that someone could present at the polling place to vote prior to their absentee ballot being received at the county election office. It is highly unlikely at this late stage in the pre-election process. This scenario, technically, could invalidate a yet-to-be-returned absentee ballot. Practically speaking, however, this would be nearly impossible for the county election officials to track at this juncture."

Jon Sesso, a Butte Democrat who leads his party in the Montana Senate, said vote changing could come up in the next legislative cycle but it isn't a high priority of his. He had concerns about the complexity of such a system. 

He also doubted Wednesday's incident would inspire many changes among those who voted for Gianforte. 

"They knew who he was when they voted for him," he said. 

The Gallatin County Sheriff released a statement late Wednesday saying there was enough information to cite Gianforte with misdemeanor assault; if convicted he could face up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Gianforte must appear in court before June 7, though a date has not been set. Gallatin County does not hold justice court, where he would appear, on Thursdays. Gianforte's campaign also released a statement Wednesday saying Jacobs was aggressive, grabbed the candidate and that Gianforte asked him to put down a recording device he was using; that did not match up with events recorded by Jacobs and detailed by others who saw what happened.

Montana does allow same day-voter registration through 8 p.m. on Election Day at most county election offices or designated locations. Voters can also check online to see if their ballots have been received. 

Holly Michels, holly.michels@lee.net, contributed to this report. 

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.