HELENA — Election Day in Montana isn't for another month, but absentee voting is getting underway in what has become most Montanans' preferred way to cast their vote.
County election officials had a Friday deadline to mail absentee ballots for the June 5 primary elections to decide party nominees for U.S. Senate, U.S. House, legislative and other state races. Early voting actually began on April 20, when 1,960 ballots were sent to military members and overseas voters.
Turnout is typically dismal for primary elections in years without a presidential race, and the June 5 election is expected to be no different. But among those who will vote in this year's primaries, between two-thirds and three-fourths of the total are expected to vote absentee.
That means at least 140,000 people will vote by mail in this election, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton estimated.
The high percentage of early voters has changed how campaigns are run, with candidates and special-interest groups already flooding websites and television and radio airwaves with ads to make sure their messages reach voters before they mail back their ballots.
Advocates for absentee voting say it encourages greater participation and provides access to people who can't physically get to a polling place. It also can reduce wait times at the polls and gives people a chance to take time to learn about down-ticket races they may be seeing for the first time on the ballot, instead of having to skip those races or blindly choose candidates when they are in a voting booth.
Stapleton isn't a fan of absentee voting. It's expensive, costing at least $1.40 per ballot for postage, and he doesn't want to see Election Day reduced to "just another day," he said. The earliest voters tend to be the partisans who vote along party lines, while the independents and undecideds usually wait, he said.
"The best voters are the most informed voters and the most informed voters are those who wait for Election Day," said Stapleton, who was a Republican state lawmaker before being elected to his current position in 2016.
Voters will have the option of choosing a Democratic, Green or Republican party ballot this year, the first time since 2000 there has been a choice of three ballots in a Montana primary.
Montana voters will be selecting Republican and Green Party nominees to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, who is running for a third term in November's general election. Five Democratic candidates are competing for their party's nomination to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte in the fall.
Voters also will decide 37 contested legislative primary elections, two contested Public Service Commission primaries and two contested primaries for district judgeships.
Even with a full slate of important races, only about a third of Montana's 675,000 voters are expected to cast ballots in the primary election. That was also how many voters participated in the last two primary elections in non-presidential years, 2014 and 2012, according to election records.
The number of absentee voters has been steadily rising over the past decade, reaching 70 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the primaries in 2016, a presidential election year.
That percentage has gone up every year since the 2008 primaries, when 34 percent of ballots cast were absentee.