The Missoula City Council primary races will not be an all-mail election as planned because county officials missed a state filing deadline. Instead, non-absentee voters in the three city wards with primaries will have to vote in person on Sept. 10.
Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby said her office missed the deadline due to an “administrative error,” but the office is using the in-person election as an opportunity to prepare for the 2020 elections.
“We’re implementing some practices before the 2020 election and really hone in some new procedures,” Causby said. “We also have the opportunity to touch every voter in those three wards.”
Causby explained that because voters were likely expecting the primaries to be mail-in only, the county will be sending notices to all registered voters who are not already registered as absentees for an opportunity to become absentees. The notices will also inform voters of the polling place information.
If non-absentee voters take advantage of the county’s offer to enroll as permanent absentees, they will receive absentee ballots for the primary election, Causby said.
The affected wards are Ward 1, Ward 3 and Ward 4. Missoula County administers all elections for the city of Missoula.
Primary candidates in the affected wards were mixed in their reactions to the switch from mail-only to in-person voting. Amber Shaffer, who is running against incumbent Heidi West and Elizabeth Weaver to represent Ward 1, said she hoped the hiccup would help her out.
“For me I hope it works to benefit my campaign,” Shaffer said. “This is a huge ward, and I hope it gives more time to meet more people and knock more doors before people head to the polls.”
Greg Strandberg, who is facing two other newcomers in Ward 4, was less optimistic about the missed deadline, and about the primary in general.
“It’s a huge waste of money, the $50,000 to hold the primary plus an extra $10,000 this year,” Strandberg said. “That’s a salary for somebody for this. When they added the primary, that cut off the number of election days, so I’ve lost time to campaign.”
The three affected wards each have three candidates vying for a seat. State law does not automatically trigger a primary in that case, but council members voted 9-1 to hold a primary Sept. 10 and add the $51,000 cost to the fiscal year 2020 budget.
Weaver, who is running in Ward 1, said she didn’t think the change will have a huge impact on voting results, and was satisfied that the county was doing its part to fix the issue with no cost to the city.
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“There were a lot of issues with this election. The late addition of a primary made it difficult,” Weaver said. “The county is making an effort to remedy this, and I recognize that democracy will still move forward.”
While the county did appeal to the Montana Secretary of State to forgo the deadline for mail-only election registration, Causby said the appeal was denied because Secretary Corey Stapleton’s office was not willing to be flexible on the legal deadline.
Causby said she hoped the increased attention and notifications being sent to all primary-eligible voters will increase voter turnout. In 2015, the last time a city primary was held, turnout for the mail election was about 30%, which is high for a city primary, she said, but was she hopeful this year would be even higher than that.
Studies on how vote-by-mail systems affect turnouts have been fairly mixed, according to an analysis by 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.”
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.
Voter misinformation coming from third-party political organizations, intentional or not, was an issue during the 2018 midterms nationally and locally, she said. She said the increased contact with City Council primary voters in 2019 and all voters in 2020 will help to lessen the effects of election misinformation.
“A big paid mailer that was made to look official went out the same day as absentee ballots, and it confused voters,” Causby said. “We were inundated with phone calls, so really getting correct information out to voters has now become something that elections officials across the country are becoming more focused on, rather than relying on third parties to communicate accurate information.”
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.
A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to Ward 1 candidate Amber Schaffer as Ward 4 candidate Amber Sherrill on second reference. The mistake has been corrected.