"Man, are we busy."
Elections workers saw high numbers of provisional ballots cast in several large counties, and late Tuesday afternoon, Lewis and Clark Clerk and Recorder Paulette DeHart said citizens were voting at a fast clip.
"We've seen a higher number of absentees, a high number of late registrations, and we have seen an increase in provisional [ballot requests]," DeHart said. Elections clerks reported lots of provisional ballots getting cast in Missoula and Gallatin counties, but not in Cascade County.
Provisional ballots will not be counted until next Tuesday to give elections staff time to ensure voters did not cast duplicate ballots.
The state has a checkered history with last-minute provisional ballots. In the 2006 race, then-Democratic state legislator Jon Tester had to wait three days before the dust settled enough to show him conclusively ahead of Republican incumbent Sen. Conrad Burns by fewer than 3,000 votes. Libertarian contender Stan Jones picked off 10,324 votes or 2.6 percent of the total. Tester had pulled ahead of Burns by 1.1 percent of the total.
That year, about 1,600 provisional ballots were cast statewide. Just over half of them came from Missoula County. This year, several Missoula polling place managers reported high numbers of provisional ballots and busy polling places.
At Lowell School, polling place manager Pam Walzer said that in 2016, she counted 100 provisional ballots cast on all of election day. By 1 p.m. this Tuesday, she already had counted 60.
Later in the afternoon at the Missoula Senior Center, polling place manager Elizabeth Oleson counted 267 ballots scanned with 67 provisional ballots cast. Oleson attributed the high number of provisional ballots to the nearby residential student population.
Dayna Causby, elections administrator for Missoula County, said a record number of people requested absentee ballots, and many people came to the elections center to request address changes and name changes. Some of those voters cast provisional ballots on election day.
Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore said just 40 people had cast provisional ballots as of the middle of the afternoon, not as many as in previous elections.
An elections worker who answered the phone in Gallatin County also said many provisional ballots were being issued. She declined to share her name.
In Billings, provisional voter Chelsea Leder said that she knew her late registration would take time, but didn’t expect waiting 70 minutes, only to still be 10 people short of the desk. Yellowstone County elections staff said they’d seen a surge of last-minute applications. But the process wasn’t as bad as 2012, when lines dragged out for four hours.
At the elections headquarters in Missoula County, an estimated 250 people were standing in line to register to vote as of 5:45 p.m. Elections workers estimated a wait time of roughly one hour, but the line was growing quickly.
Poll workers handed out clipboards and voter registration forms to people waiting in line in order to speed up the process.
In Missoula, Causby also said tabulators had trouble counting about 10 percent of the ballot second pages, but she said there's a solution for the machine. Five polling places reported machine problems Tuesday morning.
If the machine kicked out the page, the voter placed that page into an emergency bin, and the ballot would be counted at the end of the night, Causby said.
"It's not an egregious (number)," Causby said.
The problems were at the Lewis and Clark, St. Joseph’s, Hellgate and Russell polling locations. A voter at Rattlesnake school also reported problems.
Former Republican state Senate President Jeff Essmann said if the provisional ballots become an issue, “you’ll see an influx of lawyers.” But the state’s reliance on paper ballots would clarify the matter.
"Montana made the decision, that’s proven very wise, to stick with paper ballots,” Essmann said. “In other states around the country there are worries about hacking and machines breaking and a shortage of machines. You don’t have any of that issue when you have paper.”
Missoulian reporters Rob Chaney, Keila Szpaller, Cameron Evans and Seaborn Larson, and Billings Gazette reporters Matt Hoffman and Phoebe Tollefson wrote this story.