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Provisional ballots lift Democratic lawmaker to victory, leave GOP supermajorities intact

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Montana counties finished counting the general election’s provisional, military and overseas ballots Monday, and it was enough to shift the result of at least one legislative race to the Democratic candidate but left the GOP with supermajorities in both chambers.

Republicans will head into the 2023 legislative session with 34 out of 50 seats in the state Senate, and 68 out of 100 seats in the House of Representatives. Altogether, the GOP controls 102 out of 150 seats, giving it some wiggle room in votes that require a supermajority of the overall Legislature, such as putting proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot.

Provisional ballots are issued to voters who are unable to cast their regular ballots for a variety of reasons, including lacking sufficient voter ID at the polls, issues with the signature on their absentee ballot or registering in a new precinct or county on Election Day. Those without ID are required to bring sufficient documentation to prove who they are by the next day to have their votes counted.

Provisional ballots in Montana are kept separate from other ballots and are counted after the initial tabulation of regular and absentee ballots takes place.

The results don’t become official until the Secretary of State certifies them following county-level audits and the statewide canvass. The unofficial tally shows 467,736 of Montana’s registered voters participated in the 2022 general election, for a statewide turnout of 61.3%. That’s lower than recent midterm elections, but about 5 percentage points higher than in 2010, the last midterm election without a U.S. Senate candidate at the top of the ballot.

What had been a razor-thin margin of victory for the Republican candidate in House District 15, spanning portions of Lake, Glacier and Pondera counties, disappeared as provisional ballots for Lake County were tallied up, giving incumbent Rep. Marvin Weatherwax, D-Browning, the win. His 26-vote margin of victory amounts to just over 1% of the vote. For his opponent to request a recount, the margin must be 0.5% at most. A margin of 0.25% or less would trigger an automatic recount.

Republicans prevailed in two other down-to-the-wire legislative contests, however, securing a net gain of four legislative seats headed into the 2023 session.

In House District 77, which includes Granite County and part of Deer Lodge County, incumbent Rep. Sara Novak, D-Anaconda, lost to GOP challenger John Fitzpatrick by a 47-vote margin, which is also too wide for a recount.

Republicans also flipped a tightly contested Billings House seat occupied by outgoing Democratic Rep. Jessica Karjala. Republican Jodee Etchart defeated Democrat Jennifer Merecki by 38 votes, or just over 1% of the vote.

Elsewhere in the state, Republicans picked up a Democratic Senate seat in southwest Montana, which came open following the death of Philipsburg Sen. Mark Sweeney. And Rep. Rynalea Whiteman Pena, D-Lame Deer, lost to Republican Paul Green. It was one of several districts with large Native American populations, including Weatherwax’s, where the GOP made a strong showing despite having never before contested the seat since the current legislative map went into effect in 2014.

Republicans were also able to flip a pair of Democratic Senate seats in Great Falls, completing the GOP takeover of that city’s legislative districts. As recently as the 2019 session, there were six Democratic lawmakers representing the Electric City.

Democrats were able to pick off two Republican seats that had flipped red in 2020. Democrat Paul Tuss beat incumbent Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, and Democrat Jonathan Karlen defeated incumbent Rep. Kathy Whitman, R-Missoula.

On Tuesday, representatives from the statewide offices of Public Instruction, State Auditor and Attorney General took part in the random selection of precincts and races that will be hand-counted during the audits in most counties that use tabulators. Counties will hold those audits in the next week and are required to submit their canvassed results to the Secretary of State's office within two weeks of Election Day.

The Secretary of State will hold the statewide canvass and certification on Nov. 29.

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