Provisional Ballot Count

Bret Rutherford, the Elections Administrator at the Yellowstone County Elections Office, looks at a provisional ballot as they are being counted at Yellowstone County Courthouse on Tuesday.

Montana's large-population counties will be better prepared to count tens of thousands of ballots in 2020 elections — thanks to 41 state senators and 61 state representatives.

Those strong legislative majorities approved Senate Bill 162, which allows county elections officials to do the best, fastest job possible in preparing mail ballots and counting all ballots with tabulator machines. SB162, sponsored by Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, allows counties that use tabulator machines to start opening and unfolding mailed ballots on the Thursday before election day and to continue processing them on Friday, Monday and until the work is complete. The bill permits those counties to start tabulating ballots on the day before Election Day. Present law allows ballot opening and prep to start the day before the election, and permits tabulating to start on Election Day.

The extended prep and tabulating periods will allow elections officials in Yellowstone and other large population counties to provide complete election results sooner. The three advance prep work days will mean less overtime for election judges who last November worked more than 30 hours straight in several Montana counties.

The security and secrecy provisions of Montana election law will apply to the entire prep and tabulating period. Top elections officials from Yellowstone, Gallatin, Missoula, Ravalli and Cascade counties did a great job of explaining to lawmakers the careful and redundant precautions they take in every election to ensure that all ballots are secure at all times and that all ballots are properly counted.

Counting 70,000 ballots

Yellowstone County election judges were still slicing envelopes open and unfolding ballots for the Nov. 6 election nearly till 5 a.m. on Nov. 7. The ballot counting finished up about 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 7. The counting started early on Election Day and the county's tabulator machines worked properly, but the sheer volume — 140,000 ballot sheets — resulted in an all-day, all-night and most-of-the-second-day work shift with no sleep for election officials doing this very important job.

In Gallatin and Missoula counties, tabulator machines broke down on Nov. 6. Gallatin County elections workers toiled for 38 consecutive hours to finish counting ballots and the county had to pay $16,000 in overtime. In Missoula the November count ran for 40 straight hours.

Webb carried this common-sense legislation at the request of the Montana County Clerks Association. His leadership on SB162 will ensure that candidates and voters get accurate, complete election results sooner after polls close.

Yellowstone County ayes

Senators joining Webb in voting for final passage of SB162 included Duane Ankney of Colstrip, Jen Gross, Doug Kary, Margie MacDonald, Mary McNally and Tom Richmond, all of Billings. Voting no was Cary Smith of Billings.

In the House, 11 legislators representing parts of Yellowstone County supported SB162: Jade Bahr, Frank Fleming, Rodney Garcia, Jessica Karjala, Kathy Kelker, Emma Kerr-Carpenter, Bill Mercer, Terry Moore, Dale Mortensen and Peggy Webb, all of Billings, as well as Geraldine Custer of Forsyth. 

It's hard to understand why Billings Reps. Dennis Lenz, Barry Usher, Sue Vinton and Daniel Zolnikov voted to deny elections officials the time they need to do their very important work. Vince Ricci of Laurel and Sharon Stewart Peregoy of Crow Agency also voted no.

The main opposition to SB162 was from Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who suggested in a letter to lawmakers various ways that county elections officials could cheat or manipulate election results. None of Stapleton's assertions is supported by fact. The election risks he alleged were refuted in public committee hearings where county clerks and election administrators testified.

While the secretary of state continued to impugn the integrity of county elections officials the majority of legislators looked at the facts. We thank them for supporting SB162 and call on Gov. Steve Bullock to sign it into law.

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