Several regular Montana polling places will be closed to voting as people head to the polls for an unusual Thursday special election May 25.
Roughly 50,000 registered voters will be rerouted to other polling places, say Montana’s county elections officials. To put that into perspective, the number of people with closed polling places is equal to Montana's sixth largest county of voters in 2016.
Closed polling places were a big concern among county elections officials as they backed a state bill for a mail-ballot-only election. The bill failed over Republican concerns that people who vote in person, who trend conservative, would be disenfranchised.
County election officials had also asked Gov. Steve Bullock to schedule the special election for June 6, a date that would have had Montanans voting on a Tuesday in the first full week of June, the date Montana’s primary elections are held. Elections officials struck out there, too.
Many of the polling places are already booked with other events and are unavailable for the state’s U.S. House special election. Bullock chose May 25 because it was the earliest day possible for the special election and he wanted Montana's empty House seat filled.
“Jim Darcy School (in Helena) is having a big art fair, with art in the classrooms and kids going everywhere,” said Audrey Dufrechou, Lewis and Clark County elections supervisor. The school polling place serves 3,372 registered voters. Some of those voters will be voting absentee, but there’s always people who stop by the Helena polling place on election day to drop off their ballot or pick up a replacement ballot. It isn’t just the vote-in-person crowd that shows up.
Those Jim Darcy voters will travel eight miles to the county fairgrounds. Dufrechou is concerned some voters won’t make the trip, especially if they find out after driving to the school. She’s mailing out notices about the change.
In Ravalli County, Elections Supervisor Regina Plettenberg is redirecting 5,000 voters away from Hamilton High School and over to the county fairgrounds.
“They’re having graduation. In fact they will be set up for rehearsal that day and graduation on Sunday,” Plettenberg said.
Ravalli County is one of those rural Montana areas where most people don’t vote absentee. About 48 percent of Ravalli County voters cast absentee ballots in 2016. People like to vote in person Plettenberg said.
In the more populated counties like Missoula, Gallatin and Yellowstone the absentee voting rate is about 70 percent or better, according to Montana’s Secretary of State.
That high absentee voter turnout hasn’t quelled polling place concerns in Missoula County, where Rebecca Connors had eight polling places unavailable for multiple reasons. Franklin, Lowell and Rattlesnake schools are under construction.
Chief Charlo, Cold Springs and Russell schools are having orchestral events. At Lolo Grade School and St. Joseph Elementary, the May 25th is graduation day.
Lolo is the big concern, Connors said. It’s in a rural area where many people like to vote in person. Connors said she understands the appeal as rural resident herself. Voting is a community thing in rural areas, a time to get together.
“We’re doing a heavy media campaign,” Connors said. “We’re running ads in the Missoulian. We have two-color ads running this week. We’ll have a direct mailing.”
Giving voters a heads-up is complicated by a mail ballot school election that will be taking place May 2. No one wants to confuse voters.
There are limits to how much voters are willing to put up with before they decide not to vote. Connors said her office is considering reducing the number of polling places in Missoula County in future elections. The county has 28 polling places, which require more money and resources than the elections office has.
Preparing for the reduction, Missoula County Elections and the University of Montana polled voters on how far they were willing to travel to vote. Voters became discouraged after after five miles.
In Yellowstone County, Elections Supervisor Bret Rutherford said Pioneer School will not be open for voting. The polling site serves about 650 people who will have to drive to MetraPark.