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HELENA - If a House bill heard Wednesday becomes law, voters in 17 counties will cast their ballots by mail in 2009 and 2010 elections as a part of a pilot project.

House Bill 18 by Rep. Pat Ingraham, R-Thompson Falls, drew support from a number of county clerks and recorders and election officials, the Montana Association of Counties and League of Women Voters at a hearing Wednesday before the House State Administration Committee.

Ingraham predicted mail-voting would increase voter turnout and help overburdened local election officials, who now must administer three elections: the traditional one at the polling places, permanent absentee voting and Election-Day registration and voting.

"These people are telling you they need some help," said Ingraham, a former Sanders County clerk and recorder.

Ingraham sponsored the bill on behalf of a bipartisan legislative committee that studied the issue between the 2007 and 2009 sessions

Under the bill, all elections conducted by county election offices in 17 of the state's 56 counties would be done by mail for two years. They are: Big Horn, Blaine, Carbon, Carter, Gallatin, Jefferson, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Phillips, Pondera, Ravalli, Richland, Rosebud, Sanders, Sweet Grass and Yellowstone. The counties volunteered to participate in the pilot project.

Duane Winslow, Yellowstone County election administrator, said the pilot project will be done in the off-election year of 2010 "where there is no national spotlight" on Montana. He said Yellowstone County has run a number of mail elections since 1985 for the city of Billings and school district.

"You don't hear a lot about these elections because they work so well," he said.

Missoula County Clerk and Recorder Vickie Zeier said she's passionate about elections and making voting accessible to people.

"We're about to face a train wreck," she said, adding: "There has to be some relief."

She said the county hired 650 people to work at polling places on Election Day, while 54 percent of the Missoula County voters cast absentee ballots in the November 2008 election.

Missoula County ran a mail-in election for the city of Missoula in 2007, she said, and encountered some problems getting ballots back that had been mailed to university students who changed addresses. She said the election office was able to get these cleared up before the election and send the ballots to the right addresses.

"We believe it is a fair process for every single voter," Zeier said.

Linda Stoll, representing Missoula County and the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, said election officials "are unable to get qualified people to work as poll workers."

Meanwhile, costs of running elections are increasing, she said.

Some groups representing the elderly, young, poor and disabled voters, American Indians and environmentalists lined up against HB18.

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They called a series of amendments they said were necessary to ensure certain voters don't lose their right to vote under the change.

"I have serious concerns about how this is probably going to preclude people from voting," said Jeanne-Marie Souvigney, who represented the Montana League of Conservation Voters.

She criticized the bill for not providing for any evaluation of the statistical data accumulated in the pilot project. Souvigney said the secretary of state's office should do the assessment.

The bill requires participating counties to collect a host of statistics, including how many people cast ballots, how many ballots were returned unable to be delivered, voter turnout in precincts where more than half the voters are American Indians and where there are significant numbers of minorities, students, low-income residents.

Similar statistics will be collected in 15 counties where the elections will be run the same way as they are now and can be compared with the mail-in elections.

Rep. Tony Belcourt, D-Box Elder, opposed mail balloting on behalf of the American Indian Caucus, saying: "Until two years ago, we didn't even have street addresses on the reservation."

Some of the groups advocated the establishment of more "safe drop" locations for voters to return ballots if they don't want to mail them or can't afford it. They proposed more safeguards for voters whose ballots are lost or never received.

"We believe these changes will result in a much smoother Election Day and strengthened trust in our democratic institutions," said Matt Singer of Forward Montana, which helped register several thousand first-time voters last year.

The committee didn't vote on the bill Wednesday.

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