For 10 years, Vance Bennett has volunteered as an elections official, and this year he’s seeing “way more people turning out” than ever before.
His experience reflects what Dayna Causby, the Missoula County elections administrator, anticipates will be a record-breaking election on Tuesday, which is highly unusual for the midterms. She said that in 2016, 76 percent of registered voters showed up at the polls; already, 66 percent have voted absentee.
“So I think we’ll push above that number,” Causby said. “Of the registered voters, 70 percent requested an absentee ballot.”
On Monday, a steady stream of vehicles pulled up to the elections center office at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, as people swung by to register to vote or drop off their ballots. Those included Tonya Rice, and her daughter Josephine Booth.
“I hadn’t registered yet and thought I’d better get that done now so I get my ballot done before the lines — especially with a 2-year-old,” Rice said. “She’s going to be a future voter.”
Across Montana, early registration and voting ended at noon Monday in order to give elections officials time to prepare for same-day registration on Tuesday. In Missoula County, same-day registration is at the fairgrounds elections center from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“We need to get ready to serve voters at the polling places,” Causby said, as a line of voters led out of the election office building. “We need to print supplemental registers to go out to the precincts.”
Elections officials like her are doing everything they can to make voting easy. They’ll have two drive-through ballot drop offs at the fairgrounds — one at the Russell Avenue entrance and the other at the South Avenue entrance. On Monday, vehicles were quickly moving through the line, but with remodeling and construction work at the fairgrounds, Causby cautions that it will be even more congested on Tuesday.
“We also have a 24-hour drop off that’s always open at the back side of our building,” she said, quickly adding that all ballots need to be turned in by 8 p.m. “But there’s pretty heavy construction, so we made our processes a little different this year.”
Already, they’ve checking signatures on the white ballot envelope to make sure they match signatures already on file. When the two appear to be different, election officials are calling voters, with some people having to come in to verify their signature.
“My daughter’s signature didn’t match, so she got a phone call,” Bennett said.
The blue envelopes holding the ballots themselves actually won’t be opened until Tuesday morning, when election officials will start to tally the votes. Causby noted that any ballot that is rejected by the tallying machines — the ballot might be torn or have a strange mark on it — will be turned over to nonpartisan teams of three people who will fill out a clean ballot in the manner they believe the voter intended.
Most of those on the teams aren’t affiliated with any party, and all three people have to agree on what the markings are before the ballot is resubmitted. Those teams also will fill out physical ballots for people who voted electronically from overseas.
All of this is a sequestered process from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“They’re not allowed to leave or talk on the phone,” Causby said. “If they have to talk on the phone, one observer sits with them and listens to the whole conversation.”
She expects the first results from the early voters will be released moments after 8 p.m., and the next update will be about an hour later. From there, Causby hopes to provide updates every half-hour. Those updates can be found at Missoulian.com, at Missoulavotes.com or at sosmt.gov.
Causby reminds voters that a handful of polling places were relocated due to construction work. Hawthorne voters need to go to the Orchard homes Country Life Club at 2537 So. Third St. W.; Hellgate Elementary voters report to the Missoula Technology & Development Center at 5785 West Broadway; and Cold Springs and Meadow Hill voters should go to the Chief Charlo Elementary, 5600 Longview.
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.