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Montana officials advocate for voting by mail as COVID-19 calls election processes into question

Montana officials advocate for voting by mail as COVID-19 calls election processes into question

From the Here's how state and local governments are responding to the coronavirus pandemic series
Absentee Ballots

Nancy Curriden prepares absentee ballots for mailing in October 2016 at the Yellowstone County Courthouse. Shifting to a mail-ballot only primary might be the safest option for Montana counties, Montana Senate President Scott Sales said Monday.

Shifting to a mail-ballot only primary might be the safest option for Montana counties, said State Senate President Scott Sales, who is asking Gov. Steve Bullock to apply emergency powers to make it possible.

Sales, a Bozeman Republican, said mail ballots would protect from coronavirus Montana seniors who are not only reliable voters, but who also staff polling stations as volunteers. Sales is also one of six GOP candidates for secretary of state, which oversees elections.

“The people who come to vote on election day are my age or older, They’re the older generation. They’re the most reliable voters and our election judges and the people who work at the polls are even older than that,” Sales said. “They’re typically in their 70s and 80s. And whether you think this thing is going to get a lot of legs, or not, that is the most vulnerable segment of our society, those folks in that age group.”

Sales made his pitch for a primary mail election on Monday. Tuesday, state Sen. Democrat Bryce Bennett, who is also a secretary of state candidate, called for Bullock to make a mail-ballot primary happen. 

The decision whether to switch to an all-mail primary should be up to individual counties, Sales said, but the governor would have to apply emergency powers to give counties the option. Sales said he spoke to Bullock, a Democrat, about the decision after consulting with legislators and county-level election officials.

Bullock's staff confirmed the governor spoke with Sales, but said responding the pandemic came first.

"The governor's immediate focus is on the measures that are necessary today to slow the growth of new infections of COVID-19. He will be considering all options related to the June primary election as needed," said Marissa Perry, communications director for the governor.

“I did speak to the governor, for full disclosure, too — after the fact," Sales said. "He wasn’t part of my discussion in terms of deciding to do this, but he was one of the first people I called in order to have a conversation with regarding it. He indicated to me that he was moving along these same lines and he had other things on his agenda that were a little more timely. But he said this was something he was considering anyway.”

Sales said he also spoke with Montana House Speaker Greg Hertz, R-Polson, and other legislators about empowering counties to decide whether to switch to a mail ballot election.

Sales did not say he spoke with Montana's top elections official, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. 

Stapleton posted a video to Twitter on Tuesday encouraging Montana voters to consider voting by mail regardless of how COVID-19 will affect election processes.

He also said his office is taking a "deliberate pause" before deciding how to proceed with the June 2 primary.

"For the next week or so we’re gathering information, and we’re talking to people," Stapleton said in the video. "We’re listening to the health experts and what they project over the weeks and months to come. We’re watching what the other states have done or are doing. And yes, we’re looking at the federal government to see if they provide insight or direction.”

After that, his office plans to decide how to proceed, he said.

"We’re going to make good choices, and not emotional choices," he said.

Stapleton also said he's watching whether Congress will pass any legislation regarding elections.

Montanans already vote by mail for school elections and have the option of voting by mail in general and primary elections using absentee ballots. This year’s primary election is June 2. Early in-person voting is scheduled to begin May 4, with absentee ballots going out in the mail May 8.

Several states responding to election safety concerns during the pandemic have rescheduled primaries or considered all-mail elections.

Given that the duration of the coronavirus pandemic is unknown, Sales said it would be less disruptive to switch to mail voting, just for this election cycle, and let the June 2 end date for voting stand.

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Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has called for more thorough reviews of rejected ballots to identify cases of voter fraud, sparking an email feud with Missoula County and frustrating other election officials from Republican and Democratic counties who see no evidence of a broken system.

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