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Election line

Voters line up as Yellowstone County polls open at the Montana Pavilion at MetraPark on Nov. 6.

On April 19, Yellowstone County is expected to mail out 76,000 ballots for school elections. The all-mail-ballot elections will be conducted the same as in recent years, except that a new law will restrict how voted ballots are returned.

Legislative Referendum 129 was approved by voters in the November 2018 election. Legislators who put it on the ballot claimed that the state needed to to do more to ensure that strangers don't interfere with the return of ballots.

Starting with 2019 elections, every county elections office is required to have a registry for people who return anyone else's voted ballot. The ballot collection registry form issued last week by the Montana Secretary of State Office asks for the ballot collector's name, address and phone number as well as the name and address for every voter whose ballot the collector is returning. The form also asks whether the collector is a caregiver, family member, household member or acquaintance of the voter. Under the new law, only people who have one of those relationships with the voter are allowed to personally return the ballot.

The new law applies only to in-person ballot returns. Ballots mailed back to the elections office aren't subject to registration. Yellowstone County will continue to offer the after-hours ballot drop box at the County Courthouse and no registration form will be required for those ballots, according to Bret Rutherford, elections administrator.

To understand how this new requirement works, let's look at the recent Belgrade school bond election in which Gallatin County sent out 13,239 ballots, of which 4,649 were returned and 1,009 were returned in person.

The county sent out a new ballot collection form with each ballot, along with information about the new law, according to Casey Hayes, Gallatin County elections administrator. The county incurred an additional $1,100 in printing expenses to comply with the new law.

Hayes said the county plans to continue to send collection forms with mail ballots because 70 percent of the people who returned other voters' ballots used those mailed forms.

Dropping off ballots for this bond election took longer, required more election staff time and caused some confusion among voters, Hayes said. For general elections when more ballots are issued and voted, the county may have to hire additional staff just to assist with the ballot collection forms, he said.

The law also requires county elections offices to send all the ballot collection forms weekly to the Commissioner of Political Practices Office in Helena. Hayes said Gallatin County election staff scanned the forms and transmitted them electronically to the COPP.

The new law says that a person can't bring in more than six ballots per election and that all the information on the ballot collection form must be signed as true and correct under penalty of perjury. Each ballot returned in violation of the collection law may result in the collector being fined up to $500. The law says that enforcement is up to the COPP and county attorneys — not the elections office.

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Frankly, this new law is an inconvenience to voters and an unnecessary expense to counties. The Gazette called for defeat of LR-129 last fall.

The Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act must not deter any eligible voter from casting a ballot and having that ballot counted.

When you receive your ballot in April for the May 7 school elections, the easiest way to return will be by mailing it. Voters are encouraged to put a stamp on the ballot, but the U.S. Post Office has been directed to deliver ballots with insufficient postage to the elections office, which will pay the postage, Rutherford said.

Ballots also may be returned at the after-hours drop box at the courthouse. Voters who bring their own ballots into the elections office during regular business hours don't have to fill out the extra form. Those who want to turn in ballots during business hours for their spouse, neighbor or others, should fill out a collection form that came with the ballot before going to the elections office.

Both Hayes and Rutherford said that all ballots dropped off at their offices will be counted under usual procedure — regardless of whether a collection form is filled out. The new law doesn't prevent ballots from being turned in; it adds a hassle to the voting process.

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