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Despite long lines, election office had few problems
Jim Peterson, left, and Dean Idstrom roll a scanner, used to count votes, back to storage Wednesday at the Yellowstone County Courthouse.

Duane Winslow knows what he wants before the next election.

"We're going to have the commissioners build a bigger courthouse with a bigger lobby," Winslow, Yellowstone County's election administrator, said Wednesday morning.

It was a tongue-in-cheek solution to real problems caused by a crush of last-minute voters who came to the courthouse Tuesday to register and cast their ballots in person. In addition to overseeing a big election and counting tens of thousands of votes Tuesday, Winslow and his staff had to process 837 same-day registrants.

And since ballots filled out at the courthouse on Election Day are folded and bundled inside two envelopes, just like absentee ballots, it took a lot of extra time to process the ballots.

Winslow's office tabulated nearly all of the 70,623 ballots cast in Yellowstone County by 11:35 p.m. Tuesday, but it would be nearly four more hours before the last of the absentee, same-day and resolution ballots were counted and the results posted online. Winslow went home at about 4 a.m. Wednesday and was back at work by 8 a.m.

Resolution ballots are those that have to be processed individually because they are rejected by the automatic vote-counting machines. In some cases the ballots were ripped or bent, in which case members of the resolution board had to fill out a new ballot, copying the voter's intentions. The originals are saved and if need be can be compared with the duplicates.

In the majority of cases, voters neglected to completely ink in one or more ovals on their ballot, a job finished for them by the resolution board.

Overall, Winslow was pleased with how well things went Tuesday, thanks largely to changes made in staffing and procedures after late-night glitches seriously delayed the vote counting in 2006.

"It went reasonably well," he said, "but it was pretty darn uncomfortable throughout the day for people who had to wait in line."

That's why he jokingly suggested expanding the courthouse before the next election. In truth, Winslow said, one solution might be to move the election office, at least on Election Day, to a big space like the arena at MetraPark and then bring in additional workers and computers.

At the courthouse, he said, so much space is taken up by same-day registrants and so much of the clerks' attention is devoted to them that other aspects of the complex Election Day procedures tend to suffer neglect.

The best possible solution, in Winslow's view, would be for the Legislature to authorize the transition to the use of mail-in ballots for all general elections. There are plans to introduce a bill in the 2009 Legislature to establish a pilot project in select counties, with the possibility of expanding it statewide.

The 2008 election process isn't quite over for Winslow's office. There are still 545 provisional ballots that will be counted Monday at 3 p.m. Provisional ballots are filled out if there is any question about a voter's eligibility on Election Day. Anyone who votes provisionally has until 5 p.m. on the day after the election to provide valid ID information in person, by fax, by e-mail or by a letter postmarked no later than the day after the election.

On Tuesday, Winslow and his staff dealt with one voter who initially looked as though she'd need to vote provisionally. When she tried to register to vote, she was asked how long she'd been living in Montana. Two weeks, she responded. A clerk told her she was ineligible because a minimum residency of 30 days was required.

The voter then said she misspoke and had been living here since September. That sounded doubtful to the clerk, but after consulting with Winslow and attempting to have the voter fill out a provisional ballot, the voter produced a medical bill from mid-September that had been sent to her Billings address.

The voter said she had meant to say she'd been working in Billings for two weeks but had been living here for six weeks. In the end, she was allowed to register and cast a regular ballot.

Those are the kinds of situations Winslow and his staff deal with all day long on Election Day, not to mention the occasional absent-minded voter. Tuesday night, Winslow had at least two driver's licenses and one MDU bill on his desk, left behind by voters attempting to prove their residency.

After the provisional ballots are counted Monday, Yellowstone and all other counties in the state will conduct a canvass - officially certifying their election results - on Wednesday. The final step will be for the state to certify results statewide, something it has to do within 20 days of the election.

At that point, Winslow could be busy again. There is one very close race in Yellowstone County - the House District 58 race between incumbent Republican Krayton Kerns and his Democratic challenger, Don "Doc" Woerner. In final, unofficial results, Kerns was leading 2,321 votes to 2,299. Unless the results are dramatically changed when provisional votes are counted, the margin of defeat will be just large enough for Woerner to request a recount.

Kerns, who represents the Laurel area, was elected to the House in 2006 after a recount of a tie vote gave him a three-vote winning margin over incumbent Emelie Eaton.

Winslow, faced with the prospect of another recount involving Kerns, said he jokingly told Kerns that he's thinking of asking Stillwater County to annex HD58.

Contact Ed Kemmick at ekemmick@billingsgazette.om or 657-1293.

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