Things were going smoothly as of 9 p.m. Tuesday in the Yellowstone County Election Office, but a flood of people registering to vote on Election Day was proving to be a major distraction, according to Election Administrator Duane Winslow.
With about 20 people still in line to vote at 9 p.m., Winslow said 808 people had registered and voted at the courthouse Tuesday. That compared with a total of 481 Election Day registrants in 2006, the first time late registration was allowed.
"It occupies so much of your attention that you're drawn away from other things," Winslow said. "Somewhere an election administrator is going to hit the wrong switch because he or she is going 12 directions at once."
Winslow knows a thing or two about hitting the wrong switch.
In 2006, Yellowstone County made headlines because the vote-counting went on all night, after Winslow neglected to hit the "zero out" button on two of the county's three vote-counting machines. With control of the U.S. Senate still up in the air and with razor-thin margins between the vote totals of Republican Sen. Conrad Burns and his Democratic challenger Jon Tester, the results suddenly assumed national importance.
The recount ended about 7 a.m. the day after the election. When results finally came in from Yellowstone and several other counties plagued by human error and machine malfunctions, Tester was Montana's new senator.
That year, Winslow took the blame for delays in Yellowstone County. There were nearly 20,000 absentee ballots in the county in 2006, and those ballots are normally counted first, after which the regular ballots from the precincts are counted.
After the absentee ballots were counted, Winslow said, he was supposed to hit a "zero out" button on the three voting machines, which basically cleaning the slate before the regular ballots are counted. But Winslow neglected to take that step on two of the machines, with the result being that up to 3,000 absentee ballots may have been counted again when the regular ballots were being run through the machines. Winslow decided about 12:40 a.m. to undertake a complete recount.
Winslow said the process in place this year appeared to be working well. Same-day registrants were directed to a table in the courthouse lobby, where clerks could look up their voting status on computers and hand them a registration form to fill out while they stood in line. After reaching the election office, they were handed a ballot and directed to a voting booth.
In a cramped, fenced-off room just above Winslow's office, workers sorted absentee ballots, still in their secrecy envelopes, arranging them numerically and by precinct in plastic mailing containers. Starting at about 12:45 p.m., those envelopes were sent down to a ground-floor conference room, where other workers removed the absentee ballots from their secrecy envelopes and unfolded them to get rid of bends and kinks. From there, the absentee ballots were taken to be counted by optical-scanning machines in the motor vehicle department.
Winslow said before Election Day that one of the most time-consuming tasks was simply removing the absentee ballots from their mailing envelopes and secrecy envelopes.
"Who would think it would take 25 people all day long to open envelopes? But it does," he said. Except for a handful that came in late, all of the county's absentee ballots were tabulated just before the polls closed at 8 p.m.
In addition to election judges, Winslow this year had 28 county employees working as polling place managers, with each keeping an eye on two or three precincts. Their job was to provide needed supplies and deal with any problems that arose. In the middle of the afternoon, they also came into the courthouse to deliver early batches of absentee ballots that had been collected at polling places.
Winslow said those supervisors were "worth their weight in gold" and were partly responsible for the fact that things were "remarkably calm" in all of the county's 69 precincts Tuesday.
The big crush was in the courthouse itself, the only place where same-day registrants could vote on Election Day. Given the relentless, monthslong effort to register voters this election year, Winslow was surprised that so many people were signing up on Election Day.
"I don't know how you cannot be registered in Yellowstone County," he said.
Local attorney Randy Bishop, who was working as an observer for the Democratic Party in the courthouse lobby, was likewise surprised.
"To me it's wonderful," he said, "but it's just shocking."
Mari Cantrell said she waited until Tuesday to register and vote because she had been under the mistaken impression that she needed a valid state driver's license to do so. She used to live in Billings and moved back from out of state a year and a half ago.
She said her husband and her mother called her Tuesday to tell her she didn't need a license, just some kind of document showing that she was a Montana resident.
Despite the long lines at the courthouse, she said, "it was worth it to come down and do it."
Jane Zamora voted at Castle Rock Middle School at 3 p.m., with almost no wait. But she brought her 20-year-old son, Antonio Zamora-Barron, down to the courthouse at 4:30 so he could register and vote for the first time.
Why did they wait until Election Day? Jane Zamora said her son works a night shift and is often busy during the day, and "time kind of crept up on us." They waited in line about 45 minutes.
The very last person in line at the courthouse was Hope Rightmier. She was one of the few people voting at the courthouse who did not register Tuesday. Her trouble was that she works as a recruiter at a Navy recruiting office on the West End, and she was dealing with a fresh prospect until 7:30.
That meant she didn't have time to drive out to her precinct in Ballantine, so she stopped by the courthouse instead. Rightmier said she usually voted absentee but decided to vote in person on Election Day this year. After her experience Tuesday, she said, she's thinking of going to back to absentee voting.