DARBY — A contentious mayoral race here became even more heated after a last-minute dispute arose over what Mayor JC McDowell said was a “get-out-the-vote” effort.

McDowell said he heard that some people hadn’t received ballots through the post office, and others who filled them out and sent them to the Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder’s office said their ballots weren’t showing up as having been returned.

He also worried that Darby residents might not realize that it was a mail-in ballot only, and that they would show up at their typical polling place, only to learn they couldn’t vote.

Based on these concerns, McDowell offered to provide rides to Hamilton, so that anyone who wanted to vote at the last minute would be able to do so. He said he personally wouldn’t drive people, but he had friends who would do so. Voters just needed to come to his business, Bandit Brewery, by 5 p.m. to catch a ride.

“We offered to help carpool people up there so they wouldn’t have to drive,” McDowell said. “I never personally said I would take their ballots up there. This was just a get-out-the-vote campaign

But if you called Town Hall and explained you had no way to get your ballot to Hamilton, you were told you could drop it off at Bandit Brewery or at the post office, and the ballot would be delivered to the Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder’s office in Hamilton.

While that wouldn’t cross any line legally in Montana, it did create at least the perception of impropriety, said Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg. 

“There’s a perception if you collect ballots or the spouse of a candidate does, that something’s going on. I discourage it,” Plettenberg said. “But in big elections, for absentees, a lot of times non-partisan groups will go out and collect ballots for people and turn them in. Sometimes the parties will do it as well.

“But other people collecting ballots has been a concern.”

In Colorado in 2014, unease ran high over what is called “ballot harvesting,” when campaign workers went door to door asking voters for their mail-in ballots. In Arizona in 2016, a federal court judge upheld a ban on ballot harvesting in that state.

Plettenberg said she cautions voters against giving their ballots to anyone they don’t know.

“If you call my office, we tell you not to give it to strangers,” she said.

Turns out that in this case, it was a moot point.

“Officially, no one came to carpool or hand in a ballot at Bandit Brewery,” McDowell said.

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