Election night results for the Missoula City Council primary showed big leads for Wards 1 and 3 incumbents, and a clear loser in Ward 4, which has no incumbent candidate.
Most of the votes were counted, but totals were still unofficial.
In Ward 4, Amber Sherrill, who has served as interim executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, and Alan Ault, founder of the nonprofit Montana Auto Tech and member of a coalition of candidates called Team Liberty challenging the council's liberal majority, were poised to advance from their primary. The third candidate, Greg Strandberg, lagged behind, with about 8% of the vote in the most preliminary results.
“Change is hard when you’re taking on the establishment,” Ault said. “Door-knocking I’ve been hearing a lot of people very concerned about property taxes going up. People are having to sell their homes and moving into the Bitterroot Valley because they can’t afford it.”
Gwen Jones, Ward 3’s one-term incumbent, showed a strong lead over both challengers with 71% of the vote. Drew Iverson, who initially was working with the conservative Team Liberty but split from the group, was 2% ahead of Dakota Hileman, a UM sophomore, but both lagged far behind Jones.
“It's nice having some concrete numbers finally,” Jones said. “Campaigning is a weird cloud that hangs over your head not knowing where you stand. So now we can sit down and strategize a plan for the next two months.”
In Ward 1, incumbent Heidi West and newcomer Amber Shaffer, a Democrat who won an endorsement from conservative Councilor Jesse Ramos and the Missoula Republican Central Committee, both appeared set to advance over Elizabeth Weaver.
Often bucking the tide on the City Council, Ward 4's Ramos selected candidates to challenge incumbents and dubbed them Team Liberty. The five members are running on the issue Ramos is focused on: cutting spending to reduce property taxes.
Ault and Shaffer, the two candidates Ramos is supporting in the primary, likely will advance. However, they did not outright win in their wards' initial results.
The election night results in this story are still preliminary and represent almost 24% of registered voters; election officials had estimated a roughly 30% turnout for this type of municipal primary.
Earlier this summer, the City Council voted to hold primary races in the three wards with more than two candidates, creating head-to-head matchups in all six wards for the general election in November. Typically, local races like this would be a mail-only election, but a missed filing deadline with the state forced the Missoula County Elections Office to hold an in-person primary.
The general election will be held on Nov. 5.
Earlier in the day, Missoula’s polling places all reported slow and steady in-person turnout for the primary election, but that didn’t stifle some healthy competition among the three locations.
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Kathi Olson, the polling place manager at Ward 1’s Rattlesnake Elementary location, said that her polling place was the best, and that many voters in her ward liked to visit and socialize.
“People who could have mailed in their ballot bring them in here,” Olson said. “People in the Rattlesnake like being part of the process here even if they’re having the ballot mailed to their home.”
And it was true that many people at her ward were choosing to drop off their mail ballots, with about 60 people having dropped off their mail ballot by 1:30 p.m., while across town at Ward 4’s Lewis and Clark Elementary polling place, only about 12 had been dropped off by then.
Despite that, Ward 4 had seen about 20 more in-person voters than Ward 1, around 82 by early afternoon, and even found time to play a game of horse in the basketball gym they were set up in.
But Ward 3’s Missoula Senior Center polling place may have stolen the show as best polling place, or at least the most exciting, with two hours of bingo taking place alongside polling place manager Geoff Badenoch’s voting booths.
Badenoch said that since Montana instituted its no-excuse-needed absentee voting policy in 2003, in-person polling activity had declined significantly. He said the early part of the day tended to see retired couples coming and working age people arriving after 4 p.m.
“We were somewhat busy during the first part of the day,” Badenoch said. “I think twice today, we had all three booths filled at the same time.”
On Monday, mail ballot turnout was already near the overall turnout prediction of 30%, Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby said, hitting 27% early that day.
Since August 12, a week before ballots were mailed, Causby recorded 71 people registering to vote in the three affected wards, with the majority of those being people moving within the county into one of the wards holding a primary.
Because the in-person primary was not planned for, but came to be through a missed filing deadline, the Missoula County Elections Office had to find ways to save money and find the funds to conduct the election from within its budget. This led to centralizing ballot reading at the headquarters, rather than having machines at each polling place.
Elections couriers spent the day ferrying secured bags of ballots back to headquarters to prepare them for tabulation, travelling in pairs to ensure a witness along every step of the way.
“People talk about being afraid of stealing elections or voter fraud, but that would be so hard in Montana because we are and always have been a paper based state,” Badenoch said. “Every step of the way, there is a block or a check at every place it could go wrong, and then the ballots are saved for years in case anyone wants to check. So anyone who claims fraud in this state, I say the burden of proof is on them.”