Before they go to bed on Election Day Nov. 6, Yellowstone County residents will know most — but not all — of the election results, Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford said Wednesday.
The two-page ballot that will go out in the Oct. 12 mail will take twice as long to tabulate as a standard one-page ballot. That means that only the first page of the ballot will be counted the night of Nov. 6.
Initial results from that first page — including all the local, statewide and federal races, as well as the 6-mill levy for higher education — will be posted shortly after the polls close at 8 p.m. Nov. 6, Rutherford said, and updated periodically after that.
But the local results of the two statewide ballot initiatives — I-185, which extends Medicaid expansion and increases tobacco taxes, and I-186, which sets requirements for permits and reclamation plans at hard rock mines — will not be available until Wednesday, he said.
Rutherford plans to brief Yellowstone County commissioners at 2 p.m. Thursday on how he plans to get all of the 60,000 or so ballots tabulated as soon as possible on Election Day and the day after.
State law prohibits Rutherford and his elections crew, as well as elections officials in 55 other Montana counties, from processing ballots until the Monday before the election. About 95 percent of Yellowstone County voters now vote by mail, he said.
Voters in Yellowstone County, the most populous in the state, account for about one-eighth of the votes each election, depending on turnout. That means it's likely the state won't know for certain the results of those ballot initiatives until Yellowstone County reports.
Election Day is a holiday for county workers, and Rutherford said Wednesday he has commitments from about 20 of them to work alongside elections personnel that day. In addition, he’s secured a pair of Courthouse conference rooms to accommodate the extra personnel.
A representative of the company that provided the county with its ballot tabulation machine will also be on hand on Election Day. Rutherford said preventative maintenance work was completed on the machine last month “and it’s running as well as it can. But when you cram everything into one day, breakdowns can happen.”
The last time a ballot tabulator breakdown occurred, during the 2012 general election, a repair person wasn’t available until the Thursday after Election Day. That technician had just worked 48 hours straight.
Other states allow their county election officials to begin the tabulation process well before Election Day, Rutherford noted. Colorado allows officials a 15-day head start, and in Minnesota, Arizona and Oregon, it’s one week. Other states, including Illinois, Kansas and Oklahoma, permit the process of opening ballots, verifying signatures and beginning the tabulation process to begin as soon as the ballot is received in the mail or is dropped off.
Generally, Rutherford said, the process of aggregating election results begins in those states, as in Montana, on the day before Election Day.
Rutherford has proposed a new law, unanimously approved in August by his fellow Montana election administrators, to begin opening ballots the Thursday before Election Day and tabulating them the Monday before.
Legislators turned down a similar bill in 2013.
“It is inefficient the way it’s currently set up,” Rutherford said.
Rutherford testified in favor of the 2013 bill, but said he heard from legislators who were concerned that election administrators would know the preliminary results of the election the night before announcing those results.
“I like my job and I don’t want to go to jail,” he said. “There are misconduct laws that cover this.”
The alternative to waiting an extra day to tabulate the second page of the ballot, he said, is for the county to purchase an additional vote-counting machine, which carries a six-figure price tag.
The proposed bill, to be considered during the 2019 legislative session once the Montana Association of Counties can identify a sponsor for the bill “seems like a commonsense fix to the problem,” Rutherford said.