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Absentee Ballots

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

HELENA — A last-ditch effort to hold the May special election to fill Montana's vacant seat in Congress by mail failed Friday.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth, tried to "blast" a bill that would let counties choose to use mail ballots onto the House floor. A blast motion is an attempt to revive a bill that has stalled in committee. The motion needed 60 votes out of 100 House members, but only got 51.

Senate Bill 305 was carried by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. The bill would have allowed counties to choose to conduct the May 25 election to replace former U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, who resigned to become Secretary of the Interior, by mail. Voting would still be available at county courthouses before the election and on Election Day, a Thursday, as well as at satellite offices. 

Since being introduced, the bill went for a roller-coaster ride. Shortly after it cleared the Senate by a comfortable margin, the chairman of the Montana State Republican Party, state Rep. Jeff Essmann, sent an email to party members warning that its passage would mean higher turnout and a lower chance of winning for Republicans.

The bill was then assigned by the Speaker of the House to a so-called “kill committee,” known for the number of bills it votes down.

That’s what happened in the House Judiciary Committee earlier this week. The bill was not scheduled for a vote Wednesday, but after Democrats tried to force one it was indefinitely tabled on a motion from Republican Rep. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton.

The vote to table was on party lines. After, some Democrats blamed it failing on “partisan hijinks.”

“I think the partisan hijinks around this are sad and a shame and I’ve never seen it in my experience here. What has been done to this bill by sending it to this committee, in eight years I’ve never heard of a voting bill in this committee. It’s partisan hijinks and it’s not what we do in this Capitol,” Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, D-Missoula, said Wednesday

In calling for the bill to be voted on Friday, Custer said the House sat on the legislation for a month and assigning it to the judiciary committee was wrong.

“It is undeniable that our House rules were broken when it was assigned to a committee that does not deal with the subject matter of elections.”

Custer said the hearing in committee was a “sham.”

“There was absolutely no debate, no discussion about the merits of the bill. This bill deserves a good discussion.”

Of Montana's 56 counties, 54 have said they would conduct the election by mail. County clerks traveled from across the state to fill a hearing room Wednesday to ask lawmakers to pass the bill, but testimony was cut off after 20 minutes.  Of the few opponents were members of Montana's American Indian tribes, who said voting by mail reduces access to voting on reservations. 

Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crown Agency, said Friday that on the Crow Reservation many people would have not been able to vote had the election been held by mail because people move frequently and their addresses are not updated in voter rolls.

“For many of you, it may be OK to vote by mail. For many of you you’ve never had to fight ever election. We have to make sure that we have access to the poll. That we have access, that there are no shenanigans going on, every time.”

Rep. Bryce Bennett, D-Missoula, said in support of the bill that 69 percent of state legislators choose to vote by mail.

"Open and accessible elections are about allowing as many eligible voters as possible to share their vote, no matter what they are saying," he said.

After the vote, Essmann, who represents the Billings area, said that before Montana conducts a statewide election by mail it needs to ensure the process is secure. 

"There's no doubt under our current laws there's opportunity for ballot interference," he said, referencing ballot collection efforts — which are legal — in several Montana cities during the election last November.

Custer on Friday told the House that the state has not had a documented case of ballot fraud or tampering and pointed out many local elections are conducted by mail only.

When asked if he thought his letter to Republicans could have changed the fate of the bill, Essmann pointed out the vote did not fall strictly along party lines.

"People have a lot of reasons for voting they way they do," he said. "It's not a partisan issue."


Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.