The Montana House must act within the next two weeks to stop the waste of as much as $700,000 in county property taxpayers’ money.
The May 25 special election to choose a new U.S. representative will cost Montana counties about $2 million. Neither the state nor federal government will help with those costs.
If the election is conducted by mailing ballots to all eligible voters, the counties’ expenses will be $500,000 to $700,000 less than the costs of opening polling places countywide on Election Day. That’s why county commissioners, clerks and election administrators from all across Montana have asked the Legislature to pass Senate Bill 305, which would allow this one special U.S. House election to be conducted with mail ballots for all voters. (Yellowstone and many other counties already conduct school and local elections by all-mail ballots.)
Voting for mail ballot
Thanks to the senators who voted for good government and fiscal responsibility by supporting SB305, including: Jen Gross, Doug Kary, Margie MacDonald, Mary McNally, Tom Richmond and Roger Webb, all of Billings; Duane Ankney of Colstrip, Jason Small of Lame Deer, Nels Swandal of Wilsall, and David Howard of Park City.
Unfortunately, Cary Smith of Billings and Eric Moore of Miles City voted as directed by Senate GOP leadership to kill SB305.
After passing the Senate 37-13, SB305 House leadership assigned it to the House Judiciary Committee where it is expected to die. Other election bills this session have been handled in House State Administration.
House members must stand up for their constituents by getting SB305 out of Judiciary Committee, onto the House floor and over to the governor’s desk.
Besides the cost savings for county taxpayers, let’s consider what SB305 means for voters. The bill would provide several convenient, secure options for Montanans to cast their ballots on or before May 25.
- Every eligible voter would receive a ballot in the mail, with which he or she could vote, stamp and return by mail.
- Yellowstone County will provide confirmation online and by phone to voters who want to check that their ballots have been received.
- Those who want to save postage or prefer not to use the mail may hand deliver ballots to the county elections office during regular business hours.
- Folks who want to wait and vote on May 25 could choose to take their ballots to their county elections office between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on Election Day.
- SB305 also requires each county to staff ballot drop-off locations from 7 a.m. till 8 p.m. on Election Day for voters to deliver their ballots. Each drop-off location, including the election office, would have equipment for voters with disabilities to cast their ballots. If SB305 becomes law, Yellowstone County would staff at least four ballot drop-off sites on Election Day, according to Bret Rutherford, county election administrator.
The cost savings under SB305 would result from needing fewer election judges. In Yellowstone County, it takes about 25 workers to conduct an all-mail ballot election, Rutherford said. If polls must be open, about 165 workers will be needed and they would have to be paid for that 14-hour workday. Rutherford estimates the additional worker cost of staffing polling places would be about $50,000 in our county.
The majority of Yellowstone County voters — 65,000 of us — have already chosen to receive mail ballots. A year ago, we filled out cards requesting absentee ballots. Without SB305, Yellowstone County will be required by the state to staff polling places for 13 hours in which hardly anybody votes. Statewide, the Montana election administrators association reports that 18 polling places with 50,000 voters assigned to them won't be available for use on May 25, which means that counties will have to find alternative locations — unless SB305 becomes law.
If every voter gets a mail ballot, everyone has the opportunity to vote in the weeks before the election or on Election Day. The mail ballot process proposed in SB305 encourages the largest possible turnout. That’s a result citizens of every political viewpoint should support.
March deadline looms
Time is short. State law requires counties to submit written plans for all-mail-ballot elections to the secretary of state 25 days before the election. County officials need to be able to do that by March 24 for the special Congressional election.
We call upon Montana House members to move SB305 forward quickly. Don’t let this common-sense plan from Republican and Democratic county election administrators die in committee. Support SB305.