The race for Montana superintendent of public instruction was too close to call Thursday as Yellowstone County continued tallying votes two days after the general election.
With most votes counted, incumbent Denise Juneau led by less than a percentage point over Republican challenger Sandy Welch. Juneau and Welch have expressed confidence in their ability to win, and Welch said she will seek a recount if the final tally is close.
Welch's campaign manager, Mitch Staley, said the campaign is lining up observers and attorneys to oversee a recount in anticipation that whoever loses will request one.
Yellowstone is the last county in the state with returns yet to be counted. County elections registration clerk Barb Cox said officials hoped to have all votes tallied by the end of Thursday, but the effort stretched into the evening and continued to be bogged down by technical problems.
Repeated breakdowns in the county's three vote-counting machines delayed the results in the state's most populous county. A technician was on hand Thursday to fix the machines when problems occurred, election officials said.
“It looks like the only contest that may require recount is the superintendent of public instruction,” said Bret Rutherford, the Yellowstone County elections administrator. “And that can get ugly.”
He said it will depend on what happens with provisional ballots. If a recount is ordered, election judges would have to count all 70,174 ballots by hand, he said.
Preliminary numbers show 485,492 people in Montana voted in this year's election, a 71.2 percent voter turnout.
That number may change, but it is lower at this point than the 74 percent turnout in the 2008 presidential election, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said.
A record number of people registered and voted on Election Day this year. Same-day registration was implemented in 2006. This year, there were 7,975 same-day registrants compared with 7,419 in 2008, McCulloch said.
Elections offices in Montana's largest cities reported long lines in which people had to wait several hours to register to vote, with some waiting until after midnight. The wait was due partly to the large number of people but also to the length of the ballot they had to fill out once they were registered, McCulloch said.
The preliminary number of late registrants — people who registered within 30 days of the election — was a record 19,928 people, compared with 18,357 in 2008.
McCulloch said county election officials did well in handling the demand and the voters should be commended for their patience.
"As an American, I'm thinking it's a good thing we can register and vote on Election Day, and it's a good thing they waited," she said.
As for Yellowstone County, McCulloch said similar problems with the voting machines in processing ballots were seen and fixed in Flathead and Ravalli counties. But Yellowstone County has more ballots to count than other counties, and Yellowstone's technical problems lasted longer, she said.
Gazette reporter Carmen Daye Irish contributed to this report.