Missoula County voters know (mostly) whom they’ll be choosing from in the May 25 special election to fill Ryan Zinke’s congressional seat, but they don’t yet know how.
Senate Bill 305, which would make the hastily-called election mail-ballot only, passed the state Senate Feb. 24, but has yet to be approved by the House.
Rebecca Connors, Missoula County Elections Administrator, is crossing her fingers hoping the bill goes through.
“This is an unexpected election for us,” Connors said. “We’re looking at this from a very fiscally conservative perspective.”
The county would save at least $130,000 by holding a mail-ballot election, according to Connors, although they’ll still have elections offices open around the county and at the fairgrounds for people to drop off ballots or get help updating their registration.
Same-day and late voter registration will be available as well, Connors said.
She estimated a polling place election would cost the county around $230,000. That could trigger a roughly $4.50 property tax increase on a $300,000 house next year, according to Chief Financial Officer Andrew Czorny.
Although the mail-ballot bill easily cleared the Senate (37 to 13), Montana GOP chairman Jeff Essman, who is also a legislator, sent an email in February warning party representatives that mail-ballot elections “give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections."
He said the advantage was "due to their (Democrats) ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door,” according to an article from the Billings Gazette.
The special election could cost around $3 million statewide, the article stated. The price would decrease significantly if counties didn’t have to open and staff physical polling places.
Tuesday morning, Connors led the way into the county’s elections warehouse, where its 65 M100 voting tabulators and 40 ADA-accessible Automark machines are stored.
Two M100 machines were used at each polling place during the November election to count ballots.
Connors said programming, testing and setting up the M100s would cost around $10,000, with another $80,000 for staffing polling places.
On election nights, Connors said the M100s count about 2,000 ballots. The DS850s count hundreds of thousands of ballots in the same amount of time.
“If it’s a polling place election, we’d just do a drop-off,” she said. Then the collected ballots would be counted at the fairgrounds after polls close.
The machines are just one hurdle for holding the special election with polling places, according to Connors.
- Seven of the county’s 28 polling places are unavailable on May 25, including Rattlesnake, Cold Springs, Lolo, Russell and Chief Charlo school, as well as Burns St. Bistro.
- Many of the county’s elections volunteers already have plans around Memorial Day weekend, from graduations to vacations. A mail-in election would use one-sixth the personnel.
- The county’s running another election this year: School District Trustee and bonds and Special District issues are up for a vote on May 2.
When the county transitioned to mail-ballots for all school district and municipal elections in 2008, the turnouts climbed from the single digits up to 30 percent in certain elections, according to Connors.
Since then, the county has conducted twice as many mail-ballot elections (20) as polling place elections (10).
In the 2016 presidential primary, only eight percent of voters showed up to vote in person at the 28 county polling places staffed by around 10 volunteers each. The rest either mailed in or dropped off their ballots.
Around 69 percent of the 72,000 active Missoula County voters (people who have participated in recent elections or updated registration information lately) are registered to receive mail-ballots for all elections, Connors said.
Essman, the state GOP chair, has insisted he wasn’t “trying to take away the ability to vote by mail” by opposing SB 305, but wanted people to have the ability to vote at a polling place if they wanted to.
According to Connors, Missoula County would still open drop-off locations around the county on May 25, where people could fill out their ballots and access ADA-compliant voting machines.
Vondene Kopetski, Missoula County Republican Central Committee Chairman, said her group doesn’t take stances on individual pieces of legislation, but she personally supported Essman’s views as party chairman.
Connors said only one legislator has contacted her about costs of the election in Missoula County: Rep. Adam Hertz, R-Missoula, one of three Republicans representing the county in the House.
Missoula County’s five state Senators are all Democrats and all voted in favor of a mail-ballot election.
The county hires a lobbyist for every legislative session to represent its interests in Helena, also emailing the Missoula County delegation or sending officials to testify in person.
“If it’s a really, critically important piece of legislation it’s all hands on deck,” Communications and Projects Director Anne Hughes said.
Commissioner Jean Curtiss and Connors both testified in the Senate Administration Committee in favor of the bill, Hughes said.
The county’s elections office budgeted about $1.14 million for fiscal year 2017, which runs until June 30.
“There is no wiggle room,” said Chief Financial Officer Andrew Czorny. “The alternative is to take it, unfortunately, out of the general fund reserves.”
That reserve fund already took a hit with the Northwestern Energy tax settlement that cost the county about $1.4 million in lost taxable revenue.
Adding in Connor’s estimate of $230,000 to run a polling place election and Czorny came up with a $4.54 property tax increase for people with a $300,000 home.
“It’s going to be a problem,” Czorny sighed.
SB 305 is now in the House Judiciary Committee.