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Poll watchers turning out in Montana, even in mail ballot election

Poll watchers turning out in Montana, even in mail ballot election


As calls continue for Republican party loyalists to watch the polls this season, the mostly mail-ballot election in Montana means poll watchers won't have much to watch. 

Forty-five out of 56 counties are conducting their election by mail, due to public health concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

Montana law allows for one member of each political party to sit in on the polling process, as long as they don’t interfere.

“Observers can be eyes and ears,” said Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford. “They’re not a mouth.”

At a Billings campaign stop for the Republican candidates for statewide office on Thursday, lieutenant governor candidate Kristen Juras called for volunteers to watch the polls in November. It echoed requests from the White House on down for people to show up at polling places and observe the process.

The Montana Republican State Central Committee and other Republican groups tried unsuccessfully in court to block Montana counties from conducting a mail ballot election, arguing the process was susceptible to fraud. A federal judge called the idea “a fiction.” In Montana over the course of a decade and more than seven million ballots cast, researchers found just one confirmed case of illegal voting.

Rutherford said members of both major political parties had shown up at the Metra in recent days to observe. 

“They’re watching paint dry out there,” he said.

Rutherford said it’s standard for poll watchers to show up and they typically don't cause problems.

A majority of Yellowstone County voters are already signed up to receive their ballots by mail each election. But this year, with no routine polling process, there won't be as much to see. 

“They can watch people drop off their ballots,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford stressed that the county’s in-person option for voting should only be used when necessary, including if a voter will be out of town until after the election, if they made an error on their ballot and need a new one, or if their address has changed and they need to re-register.

Yellowstone County voters shouldn’t think of this year as having a choice between voting in person or by mail, he said. 

“It’s not one or the other, really. The system isn’t set up to handle that,” he said.

Voters are still cleared to drop off their completed ballots at the county courthouse or the Metra, rather than mailing them.

USPS guidance instructs voters returning their ballots through the mail to mail their completed ballots no later than Oct. 27. 


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Related to this story

Ballots for November's general election, which includes the races for president, governor, U.S. Senate and the state's lone U.S. House seat, among a host of other contests, will be mailed out Friday. 

Steve Tobin lives on Avenue F near Pioneer Park and was walking to his office in downtown Billings Tuesday morning when he saw what looked like a pile of trash at the base of a tree near the street.

"There was a torn up ballot," he said. "I didn't know what to do with it."

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