For nearly a year now, the Missoula County Elections Office has withstood attacks from Montana’s secretary of state over its ability to conduct fair elections.
It started out as a blanket charge by Secretary of State Corey Stapleton against mail balloting for last year’s special congressional election. Nearly every county in the state argued that a mail-ballot election would save a lot of money. But Stapleton urged state legislators to oppose mail ballots, bizarrely noting that three states — he was referring specifically to Colorado, Oregon and Washington — that allow all-mail ballots have also legalized marijuana use.
Missoula County Elections Supervisor Rebecca Connors reached out to Stapleton, hoping to convince him to change his position. Instead, some months later he announced that the special election had been plagued by voter fraud, casting doubt over the integrity of the elections process and calling for deeper investigation into security measures.
Last month Stapleton walked back some of those complaints, tamping down his accusations from “voter fraud” to “voter misconduct.” He says he no longer suspects intentional, coordinated voter fraud in last year’s elections — but is still concerned about incorrectly signed ballots and other mistakes slipping past elections officials.
Now, the Missoula County Elections Office is asking for help from registered voters in Missoula County. It needs to fill another 350 positions for election judges in order to ensure 2018 elections are carried out as smoothly — and securely — as in previous elections. Perhaps even more so.
Every voter in the county ought to seriously consider answering this call. And anyone who has even one drop of doubt as to the integrity of local elections absolutely must volunteer as an election judge, and witness the process firsthand. We are confident it will confirm that elections in Missoula are handled with the utmost attention to accuracy.
That’s not to say there is no room for improvement. Direct experience with the elections process is a good way to wrap one’s mind around the challenges and opportunities currently facing the local elections office, and be informed enough to offer constructive suggestions.
One of those challenges is the growing trend toward all-mail ballot elections, rather than traditional polling places. Elections officials across the nation say it not only saves precious dollars, it may become a necessity if enough people don’t volunteer as elections judges to keep polling locations staffed.
The Missoula County Elections Office aims to train 800 people to help with elections in a wide variety of functions, from polling place managers to recount judges. However, with training sessions set to begin in just a couple of weeks, it is short of that goal by nearly 350 people.
“The number of election judges is directly tied to the quality of customer service the Elections Office can provide voters over the 2018 election year,” the office explained in its call for help. “A lack of elections judges can equate to any number of deficiencies in delivering services to voters including longer lines, understaffed polling places (which could lead to consolidating polling places), fewer judges to register new voters, and overworked judges.”
Nobody — not even the most ardent proponents of all-mail balloting — wants to see that happen.
To qualify to be an election judge, an individual must:
• Be registered to vote in Missoula County
• Be willing and able to help set up a polling place
• Provide excellent customer service
• Operate voting equipment
• Ensure all qualified voters are permitted to vote
• Distribute ballots to voters
• Assist all voters
• Close down the polling place following voting
• Attend annual training
The position does require a two-year commitment; however, it’s also a paid position, with wages starting at minimum wage and increasing for those willing to take on additional hours and duties.
It is a civic duty everyone ought to take responsibility for at least once, even if just for a single two-year stint. At last count there were approximately 80,000 registered voters in Missoula County. If 800 individuals volunteered every year, the elections office would be set for a century.
Last week, Missoula County commissioners named a new elections administrator, Dayna Causby, to head the election office. The new elections administrator will need to get a running start, because it will be her job to lead the Missoula County Elections Office through what is shaping up to be another busy, contentious election year.
In 2018, Missoula County will hold a school election in May, primaries in June and a general election in November. Candidate filing opened earlier this month, and races are shaping up for U.S. House and Senate, as well as for state legislative seats. In Missoula, incumbents and challengers alike are hoping voters will support their bids to become Missoula County commissioner, Missoula County Attorney or Missoula County sheriff. There are candidates for district court judges, the Montana Public Service and Supreme Court justice.
Running for public office is an important and downright noble thing to do. But it isn’t for everyone.
Volunteering as an election judge is. It’s time for Missoula County voters to step up and help ensure that our elections remain accessible, accurate and secure.