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Missoulian editorial

Let elections officials start processing ballots earlier

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Ballot drop off

A voter drops off her ballot for Montana's special election at a box staffed by a Missoula County election official in May 2017. 

Long after the polls closed last Tuesday, elections officials remained hard at work, processing ballots and running vote-counting machines all through the night and well into the next day.

The night wouldn’t be nearly so long if elections officials were allowed to start counting the mail-in ballots that have already been returned and are just sitting around in boxes. Unfortunately, state law bars them from preparing ballots any earlier.

When they convene in January 2019, legislators should look at relieving some of this burden from our hard-working elections officials, especially since a newly passed referendum promises to cause even more headaches in future elections — for voters and election workers alike.

Legislative Referendum 129, approved by 63 percent of Montana voters last Tuesday, establishes the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act — essentially making it a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $500 per ballot, for certain people to handle someone else’s ballot. This means the end of those convenient ballot drop boxes, because the only way for elections officials to know if the right people are turning in the right ballots is to personally oversee their return, including keeping a registry of signatures with contact information for both the voter and the ballot deliverer. Further, LR129 limits the number of ballots any one individual may collect to six.

The next election will demonstrate how much these additional hurdles hinder access for would-be voters. In any case, LR-129 ensures our election workers will have more work to do next Election Day.

Elections officials are already handling more ballots than ever. In the latest election cycle, nearly half a million Montana voters returned ballots. Nearly 60,000 ballots were cast in Missoula County alone.

And a sizable portion of these ballots were returned well before Election Day. In Missoula County, than 58,700 absentee ballots were mailed in October, representing the lion’s share of the county’s 83,000 registered voters. A full week before Election Day, the elections office had already received more than 20,000 ballots.

Thousands of Missoula County voters may have turned in their ballots early, but elections officials couldn’t start counting them early. Indeed, unexpected glitches — such as voter errors, broken machines or surges in same-day registrations — only add to the burden and cause longer delays.

In the most recent election, Missoula County received a record number of provisional ballots: 1,700. More than 1,321 people signed up for same-day voter registration, which led to hour-long waits as the line stretched to almost 300 people deep at times. Early Wednesday morning, one of the county’s three ballot-counting machines broke down and remained out of operation for seven hours.

In the state’s most populous county, Yellowstone, elections administrators advised the public ahead of time that the second ballot page, the one containing Initiatives 185 and 186, would not be fully counted until the following day.

Currently, elections officials cannot start preparing ballots for counting until the day before Election Day, and actual vote tabulation cannot begin until the polls open at 7.a.m. on Election Day.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Several other states allow elections officials to start preparing ballots a week or more before Election Day. A handful of states even allow elections officials to start processing absentee ballots as they come back to the elections office, and Montana could take a close look at best practices in those places to assure the continued integrity of elections here.

The security measures that are already in place would remain in place, of course, with all ballots sealed, logged and stored in a secure location. As an additional precaution against possible computer errors, ballot-counting machines have audit logs that are subject to review on demand.

The Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders has repeatedly proposed changing the law to allow ballot preparation to begin three business days before Election Day. Since Election Day always falls on a Tuesday, this means officials could start preparing ballots on the Thursday before Election Day, and start counting ballots on the Monday before Election Day, thus freeing up valuable time to better serve voters who fill out their ballots on Election Day.

In spite of bipartisan votes, the proposal has yet to pass both legislative chambers. When the 2019 Legislature convenes, lawmakers should update the ballot-processing timeline to allow Montana’s counties to keep pace with evolving elections.

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