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A sculpture of Montana Territorial Gov. Thomas Francis Meagher guards the Capitol in Helena.

PAT BELLINGHAUSEN, GAZETTE STAFF

County commissioners and election administrators in 54 of Montana’s 56 counties have asked for state permission to conduct the May 25 special U.S. House election in the most secure, most cost-effective manner possible. The Montana Senate overwhelmingly agreed. But this week, 11 House Republicans on one committee voted to kill Senate Bill 305, which would give counties the option of mailing ballots to all voters for the May 25 election.

Despite what some GOP legislators have said, there is no evidence of partisan advantage in an all-mail-ballot election. SB305 isn’t a “one size-fits-all” proposal, it allows each county to choose whether to open all the polls as now required for federal elections or to mail ballots to all voters.

Mail ballot elections have been conducted securely and successfully in Montana for 30 years. Yellowstone County alone has held 24 all-mail-ballot elections in the past 10 years. All our city and school elections are conducted with all-mail ballots. Only elections for federal office still require opening polls.

SB305 would create a one-time exception for the May 25 election, which presents special challenges that the Association of Montana Clerk and Recorders and Election Administrators addressed in a letter to legislators Tuesday. A mail-ballot election would provide county elections officials five more days to prepare ballots than they have with the present law on polling-place elections.

Testimony to House and Senate committees from county commissioners and clerks indicates that conducting a traditional polling place election will cost county taxpayers statewide about $700,000 more than using all mail ballots. In many Montana counties, a majority of voters have already requested mail ballots, so they won’t go to the polls even if they are open. SB305 also allows counties that want a May 25 poll election to have a poll election.

“All the same protections and processes one experiences at a polling place election are in place for mail ballot elections,” the clerks’ association said.

After hearing Secretary of State Corey Stapleton oppose SB305 last week, saying that mail ballots are a convenience for the young generation “that wants to pay for nothing,” the clerks did some research and found that:

  • Among 339,000-plus absentee voters in Montana last November, the average age was 54.
  • 69 percent of Montana legislators received a mail ballot.
  • Stapleton, Attorney General Tim Fox, State Auditor Matt Rosendale, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen all cast their November ballots absentee.

“This shows how much these elected officials trust the process,” the clerks wrote. “Mail ballot elections are handled by the elections administrators, permanent and seasonal staff, election judges, county support staff and more. Security is not compromised and the process is available for public inspection.”

Both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have demonstrated that they understand what the clerks have said. Unfortunately, those 11 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee didn’t understand when they voted Wednesday to force county taxpayers to spend extra money on an election, rather than giving counties a mail-ballot choice.

The 100-member House must approve SB305 this week. The committee’s opposition means that 67 representatives must support the effort to blast the bill to the House floor. We call on all House members to vote for their constituents, for local control and fiscal responsibility. Vote to blast and approve SB305.

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