The Missoula City Council primary race kicked off for voters this week, with absentee ballots or in-person polling notices being delivered to all registered voters in the three affected wards.

Earlier this summer, the current council voted to hold primary races in the three wards, creating head-to-head matchups in all wards for the general election. Typically, local races like this would be a mail-only election, but a missed deadline forced the Missoula County Elections Office to hold an in-person primary.

The three wards, Wards 1, 3 and 4, each have three candidates vying for a spot on City Council. Ward 4 is the only primary race without an incumbent council member in the mix, as the ward’s current representative, John DiBari, decided against running for re-election.

The informational notices and absentee ballots were mailed Friday, Aug. 16.

County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby said she was confident there would be no issue in finding enough election judges for the atypical in-person election. While the in-person polling was unplanned, she said her office would use the opportunity to analyze how better to serve voters.

Causby said that by looking at who is accessing the election website and social media accounts, and tracking what they’re doing on the site, her office can better serve the needs of voters.

“We’re hoping to see an uptick in people touching our website or Facebook because of the mail notices,” Causby said. “Starting tomorrow and continuing throughout the election season, we’ll be using analytics from our website and social media to see what areas we need to focus on when providing information for voters.”

The 9,344 registered voters in the three wards not enrolled to receive absentee ballots, about a third of total voters, have the opportunity to sign up for mail ballots in time for the primary election, according to notices sent to them by the county

The notices include the required paperwork, which needs to be signed and returned by Sept. 3 in order to receive the ballot in time. The notices include options to permanently enroll as an absentee, or just for this one election, and the postage is prepaid. The notices also informed voters of their polling place location and hours. The date of the primary is Sept. 10.

The other 18,994 registered voters already signed up as absentees must return ballots by mail or by dropping them off in person in time for the Sept. 10 deadline.

Studies on how vote-by-mail systems affect turnouts have been fairly mixed, according to the MIT Election Data and Science Lab. However, the MIT analysis found that “extending (vote-by-mail) options increases turnout modestly in midterm and presidential elections but may increase turnout more in primaries, local elections, and special elections.”

State law does not automatically trigger a primary in local elections, nor does city code, but council members voted 9-1 to hold a primary Sept. 10 and add the $51,000 cost to the fiscal year 2020 budget.

The need for in-person polling facilities and notifications to all primary voters will cost the county between $8,000 and $10,000, Causby said. She said her office will not be requesting new funding to cover those costs, but will work to find it in its budget by shifting resources.

The race for City Council, while nonpartisan, has turned into somewhat of a referendum on the current council’s dynamics, specifically the lone conservative voice of council member Jesse Ramos.

As it sits now, 11 of the 12 council members have voted nearly unilaterally, skewing toward liberal policies in step with Mayor John Engen. The only consistently conservative voice is Ramos, who won his seat on the platform of lowering taxes and cutting spending.

A group of four candidates with fiscally conservative viewpoints are organizing together, and using matching campaign materials.

The group of candidates is running on a similar platform to what carried Ramos to victory. The four candidates, Sandy Vasecka, John Contos, Alan Ault and Brent Sperry, all listed Ramos as sponsoring, supporting or endorsing their campaigns in the biographies they submitted to the Missoulian, which were published in early July.

In-person polling locations for the primary are:

• Ward 1: Rattlesnake Elementary, 1220 Pineview Dr.

• Ward 3: Missoula Senior Center, 705 S. Higgins Ave.

• Ward 4: Lewis and Clark Elementary, 2901 Park St.

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