HELENA — The Republican-led Montana Senate endorsed a bill Friday to allow counties to conduct this year's expected election for U.S. House by mail, despite objections by the state GOP chairman that it would give the Democratic candidate the advantage.
The Senate voted 35-15 for the measure, which must pass a final vote before it is sent to the state House for consideration by its members.
The election will be held to choose a replacement for U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, tapped as secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior by President Donald Trump. Zinke must be confirmed before Gov. Steve Bullock can call for a special election, which will then be held within 100 days.
The mail-in ballot bill's sponsor, Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, said county clerks from across the state have requested the option of holding a mail-only election. He estimates it would save the counties a combined $500,000 or more to conduct the election without opening polling places.
"This bill is the fiscally responsible thing to do at this time, it's the fiscally conservative thing to do," Fitzpatrick said.
Earlier this week, state Rep. Jeff Essmann, who is the Montana state Republican Chairman, sent out an "emergency report" detailing his opposition.
"All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door," Essmann wrote.
Opponents of the measure in the Senate did not directly address Essmann's argument during the debate. Instead, they cited the potential for voter fraud and the need to accommodate people who want to vote at a polling place.
"This is a very big concern with simply rushing into a mail ballot, in my opinion," said Senate Majority Leader Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville.
Fitzpatrick dismissed the concerns about voter fraud and also Essmann's concerns about Democrats having an advantage in a mail-only election, saying that a majority of voters already mail in absentee ballots during elections.
"Close to 65 percent of people in the last election voted by mail and Republicans never did better," he said.
A failed amendment would have added language to the bill ensuring that satellite election offices on Native American reservations will be open for the special election.
Satellite offices on three reservations were ordered as part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit alleging Native American voters were being suppressed by having to drive long distances to election offices, and satellite offices have opened on other reservations since then.
Fitzpatrick voted for the amendment, but said counties involved in the legal settlement will have to open the satellite offices for the special election, regardless of whether those counties decide to hold mail-only elections.
Thomas opposed the addition, saying, "I don't think we need to coddle anybody in Montana."
Democratic lawmakers said the amendment would allow more Native Americans to vote in the upcoming election, and that they hope it will be added when the bill is in the House.