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Yellowstone County’s election office is ramping up for the Thursday, May 25, special election to choose a new U.S. representative, but whether it will be a polling place or all-mail ballot event remains unclear.

County commissioners this week passed a resolution requesting a mail ballot election in case the Legislature passes Senate Bill 305, which would authorize a statewide mail ballot election. Resolutions requesting mail ballots must be done 70 days in advance of an election.

“We’re basically covering our bases. It’s a show in support of our county that we would prefer SB 305 passes. Most counties in the state have done the same,” said Bret Rutherford, the county’s election administrator, on Friday.

The bill is set for a March 23 hearing in the House Judiciary Committee in Helena.

The election is to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican, who resigned to become secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior.

The Montana Republican Party selected as its candidate Greg Gianforte, a Gallatin County businessman who lost the gubernatorial race last year to incumbent Democrat Gov. Steve Bullock.

The Montana Democratic Party selected Rob Quist, a professional musician and entertainer from Flathead County, as its candidate.

Montana's Libertarian Party picked Inverness rancher Mark Wicks to be its candidate.

What will it cost?

A mail election would save Yellowstone County taxpayers about $50,000.

A polling site election would cost the county about $150,000, which includes paying judges to staff polling places, overtime, extra postage and other expenses, Rutherford said. Total staff needed would be 165 people on Election Day, he said.

A mail ballot would cost the county about $100,000 and require about 25 staffers on Election Day, Rutherford said.

County commissioners approved at mid-year an additional $131,000 in funding to help pay for the special election.

Having a polling place election also would strand about 50,000 voters statewide, Rutherford said, because of scheduling conflicts.

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In Yellowstone County, Pioneer School is unavailable on Election Day, and the 660 voters who would go there to cast ballots would likely be sent to MetraPark if there is a polling place election, Rutherford said. 

Passing SB 305 addresses the state having “a non-scheduled election on a weird day,” he said.

“It will give our voters the best opportunity to vote at the best price without causing any security concerns,” Rutherford said.

To prepare for the election, the county is proofing its ballot and will probably send it to the printers late next week, Rutherford said. A plan for a mail ballot must be sent to the Secretary of State’s office by April 10 to meet deadlines.

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Set up for mail-in

Rutherford also responded to mail ballot opposition suggesting it hasn't been done before.

The state has been running mail ballot elections in some form for almost 30 years, Rutherford said.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel here. The system is set up to do this. And security precautions are in place to do it,” he said.

Yellowstone County has held 24 mail ballot elections in the past 10 years, including a $120 million school bond election, school trustee elections, levy elections, the Lockwood lighting district election and the failed jail levy election, Rutherford said.

“We just haven’t done it for any state or federal election, and the process is exactly the same. We know how to do it. That’s what drives me nuts,” he said.

Absentee roster

Meanwhile, another election-related bill that would make permanent the absentee voter roster has been tabled. The measure, House Bill 287, was tabled in the Senate State Administration Committee.

Rutherford said there are efforts to get the bill reconsidered. “That’s a big bill for Yellowstone County,” he said. If it does not pass, about 65,000 Yellowstone County voters who are on the absentee roster will have to reapply for mail ballots in 2018.

“Every single one of them,” he said.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.