Each of the items on the ballot for the upcoming election is relatively simple and straightforward. It’s the process of turning in that ballot that’s a bit more complicated this year.
Thanks to a new state law, anyone who drops off a ballot other their own will have to fill out a special form proving information about themselves and their relationship to the voter whose ballot they are returning.
“I do worry it will confuse some people and expect we’ll field some calls about it,” Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby told the Missoulian editorial board last week. “I hope that through education, our office can help quell some of that confusion.”
Bottom line: Voters don’t have to fill out the new form if they return their ballot by mail or drop off their own ballot in person. But anyone dropping off anyone’s ballot other than their own will need to turn in the additional form as well.
Causby’s office is preparing to send out more than 75,000 ballots this week for the May 7 mail election. So after April 17, registered voters in Missoula County should start checking their mailboxes for their ballots.
Depending on which districts they live in, voters can expect their ballots to include the following items:
• Missoula County Public Schools is holding an election to fill three trustee positions representing the elementary and high school districts for a three-year term.
• The elementary district also has a general fund levy request for $200,519 to augment the existing levy, which funds general instruction and operations. Its passage would raise taxes by about $2.33 a year for every $100,000 of assessed property value on a home.
• The MCPS high school district has a levy request on the ballot as well. It would raise $118,987, for a tax increase of about 78 cents per $100,000 in home value.
• Lolo voters are being asked to support a general fund levy request for $128,000 to support instructional programs. Its passage would mean approximately $21.45 in additional annual taxes for every $100,000 in home value.
• Meanwhile, Lolo Elementary School District voters are also being asked to choose a trustee to fill a three-year term.
• Voters in the Target Range School District are being asked to support a 20-year Safety and Learning Bond of up to $8.47 million. That money would go toward updating a building that has gone 20 years without substantial remodeling, and improve the basic safety and security of the building’s entryway. The bond money would also allow the school to update its lab and arts areas, add space for studying robotics and create a new cafeteria, band, orchestra and choir rooms, among other projects.
• On the other side of the county, Bonner School has a general fund mill levy request on the ballot for $55,000. If voters in this school district approve the request, taxes will increase by about $15.63 a year per $100,000 in home value.
• Clinton Elementary School District voters are being asked to select a trustee to fill a three-year term.
• And about 18,000 voters in the Missoula Rural Fire District will decide whether to approve a permanent levy increase to raise a little more than $1.4 million a year to augment the fire district’s staff and equipment. The money would allow the district to hire, train and equip 10 new firefighter-emergency medical technicians, which would mean at least two professional firefighters were on the clock 24 hours a day, every day of the year, at each of the five stations. The levy increase would mean a tax increase of almost $40 a year for every $100,000 in home value.
As usual, ballots can be mailed back with 55 cents in postage or one Forever stamp, or dropped off at the Missoula County Courthouse, Elections Center at the fairgrounds, Clinton School, Hellgate Elementary, Target Range School, Lolo Elementary or Potomac Elementary.
Unlike in previous elections, however, and thanks to the new Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act approved by Montana voters last November, all ballots will be accompanied by the one-page Ballot Collection Registry.
The new law is intended to prevent the sort of “ballot harvesting” suspected of skewing recent elections in other states, such as North Carolina. It spells out which individuals are lawfully permitted to collect a ballot on behalf of another, and limits the number of ballots collected by any single individual to six.
The registry form explains that caregivers, family members, household members and acquaintances are allowed to collect ballots, and requires the collector to provide his name, address and phone number, as well as the name and address of each voter. Anyone who violates any of the provisions of the new law may be fined $500 – per ballot.
However, it’s not the job of the Elections Office staff to police or punish violations. They will keep a copy of each form they receive, Causby said, and provide a copy to the Montana Office of Political Practices. And while they encourage all voters to learn about and adhere to the new law, they will not reject a ballot based solely on an incorrectly completed ballot registry form.
Causby’s office is working on finding effective ways to help educate voters about the new law – especially in advance of the next year’s general elections, when turnover tends to be much higher. Elections officials across the state will be keeping an especially close watch over the process this year in order to identify and iron out any bumps.
Missoula County chose to include the registry form on the back side of the page that provides general voting instructions to avoid the additional cost of printing more than 75,000 separate pages, Causby explained. Several other counties in Montana are doing the same thing, while others have opted to print it separately.
Forms also will be available at ballot drop-off locations throughout the county, and the fairgrounds and courthouse locations both offer after-hours drop boxes.
Regardless of any potential confusion or slight inconvenience posed by the new law, the important thing is for Missoula County voters to make sure their voices are heard by filling out those ballots and returning them to the elections office so they can be counted.
(This editorial has been corrected to show that the elementary/high school district will vote to fill three trustee positions.)