What Montana should - and should not - do to ensure safe elections
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Missoulian editorial

What Montana should - and should not - do to ensure safe elections

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Don’t let any of the recent wrangling over election laws or false claims about mail ballot fraud confuse you. Voting in this Tuesday’s primary elections is as easy, safe and secure as ever.

There are measures Montanans should consider to make future elections even more so as we continue to deal with the lingering threats of the coronavirus pandemic. But instituting such changes will take a great deal of agreement on what the real threats are as well as funding assistance from the federal government.

As it stands, last week, the Montana Supreme Court ordered elections offices to maintain the status quo of counting only ballots received by 8 p.m. on Election Day, an action that came in response to a Billings judge’s prior decision to allow elections offices to continue accepting ballots after the deadline so long as they were postmarked by June 2.

That would have forced elections officials in some counties to keep tallying votes for nearly a week after the election had ended. As everyone knows, mail service in some of Montana’s most rural communities can take a while.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision means nothing has changed — voters are still responsible for making sure their ballot is returned to their elections center no later than 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 2, as it says right on the ballot itself.

The takeaway is this: If you haven’t put your ballot in the mailbox before today, it’s best to make sure it arrives in time to be counted by taking it in person to one of the drop-off locations open on June 2: The Missoula County Fairgrounds, Bonner School, Frenchtown Fire Station, Lolo Elementary or Seeley Lake Elementary.

And if you are dropping off a ballot for your spouse, parent, neighbor or other trusted individuals, take heart: The courts have suspended a bad law requiring those who drop off more than one ballot to fill out a registry.

The Ballot Interference Prevention Act was passed by voter initiative in November 2018, and in addition to requiring a registry, it limits the number of ballots that can be dropped off by any one person to six. That posed a very real hardship for some far-flung communities lacking ready access to a polling place, such as rural Native American reservations, and in fact, several Native American tribes and advocacy groups filed suit to overturn the law. Further, at least three different county elections administrators have complained to legislators that it was suppressing votes and causing unnecessary frustration. They were probably relieved to hear that on Friday, a district judge in Billings granted a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the law.

Meanwhile, the ballot deadline issue is likely to undergo an appeal ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

Earlier this year, after nearly every county in Montana opted to hold primary elections by mail in order to avoid any undue exposure to the coronavirus, the Montana Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sued both to push back the ballot deadline and to stop the Ballot Interference Protection Act. The Montana Secretary of State’s Office pushed back only against the deadline change.

Now, voters ought to think ahead to the next election and ask some hard questions about how to ensure that every vote counts without putting the larger community at risk of a “second wave” of the virus. As disruptive as the first wave has been, a second round of school closures, business shutdowns and job losses would be ever more devastating, and all reasonable precautions should be considered to prevent it.

The general elections in November are already generating high interest and that will likely translate into high voter turnout. That’s something to cheer in any election, but with COVID-19 concerns, elections offices must take steps to ensure that large numbers of voters can cast their votes safely.

That doesn’t mean the next election should be all-mail only, but it does mean that voters should be encouraged to vote by mail first and to use in-person options as a last resort, and that the state and counties should have an emergency plan in place. Polling locations are going to have to require strict public health procedures and appropriate distancing, which could mean long lines and lengthy waits.

One way to prevent both would be to offer more polling locations. The Fairgrounds is already ideally set up for this, with multiple buildings on one site capable of handling voter overflow. But additional polls require additional staffing and resources, which requires additional money.

The Brennan Center for Justice recommends that each state establish an election pandemic task force that would issue guidelines for polling place modifications, as well as study how best to expand voter access while providing for education and preventing manipulation. It estimates the total costs of adapting voting systems across the United States at about $2 billion.

However, it also cautions against wasting resources on ineffective measures that serve only to disenfranchise voters. Despite repeated assertions by some officials in high office, groups like the Brennan Center have found that fraud in mail voting is extremely rare. Claims of non-citizens or out-of-state residents swaying elections have been thoroughly investigated and debunked.

To make voting more accessible, Montana could offer online voter registration, as a majority of states already do. It could also make a vote center available in every county on Election Day, which unfortunately has not always been the case. It could provide pre-paid postage for mail ballots in every county, and yes, for future elections, it could certainly look at accepting ballots that arrive late but that are postmarked by Election Day.

These are all proven, reliable, secure ways to ensure that every vote counts — even during a pandemic.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Editor Gwen Florio and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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