On Nov. 5, elections officials in Yellowstone County will start opening an expected 55,000 early ballots — each containing two sheets of votes to be counted on Nov. 6. The election judges will start removing the ballots from “secrecy envelops,” unfolding, flattening, carefully stacking and securing them in preparation for counting that will commence at 7 a.m. on Election Day.
Even if the process goes as quickly as possible, not all the ballots can be prepared on Monday and not all can be counted on Election Day with Yellowstone County’s tabulation machines. In the 2016 presidential election, ballot counting took about 17 hours, ending at 1:30 a.m. with a single-sheet ballot. There were no malfunctions or other problem but the number of voter errors slows the process.
County elections administrator Bret Rutherford has advised the County Commission that the second page of the Nov. 6 ballot — the page with Initiative 185 and Initiative 186 — won’t be counted by midnight on Election Day. Results for all the issues on the first ballot page are expected to be announced within an hour of polls closing at 8 p.m. with some updates as polling places round the county deliver their ballots to the elections office.
There is a better way to handle ballots and deliver complete election results much sooner: Change state law to allow counties to start preparing ballots for counting three business days before the election and allow counties to start tabulating votes the day before Election Day. Montana law now says the ballot prep can’t start sooner than the day before the election and that tabulation can’t start till 7 a.m. on Election Day.
These aren’t novel ideas. Colorado allows officials a 15-day head start on prep and tabulation, and in Minnesota, Arizona and Oregon, it’s one week. Other states, including Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Washington and Oklahoma, permit the process of opening and tabulating ballots to begin as soon as the ballot is received by the elections office.
“There’s a good chunk of red states and blue states that do this,” Rutherford told The Gazette.
Montana clerks and election administrators want to change Montana law to give them the time to get ballots counted as quickly and accurately as possible. As proposed by Rutherford and approved by the clerks association, the change would allow preparation to begin on Thursday before Election Day and to continue on Friday and Monday, the proposal would also allow elections officials to start counting ballots the day before the election.
This is the third session in which county election administrators have tried persuade lawmakers to allow them to be more efficient in this important work. In 2011, the clerks asked for three days to prepare ballots, and the law was changed to allow one day. In 2013, a three-day prep bill sailed through the House with bipartisan support, received unanimous approval in Senate committee and then died on the Senate floor.
Rutherford said he heard from legislators who were concerned that election administrators would know the preliminary results before announcing those results. However, Montana law already covers secrecy for ballot tabulations. Elections officials start counting ballots before the polls close and are legally bound to keep the information secret until the polls close. There have been no cases of election officials divulging partial results while voting was ongoing.
When Election Day 2018 is over, Yellowstone County lawmakers should step up to sponsor a bill that allows county elections officials to do their job in the most efficient, effective way that meets the needs of a growing population that has chosen to vote early. It’s time to update Montana’s election law with common sense.