A resolution objecting to an all mail ballot election in November was defeated Tuesday, Sept. 1 by the Jefferson County Commission.
The ongoing uncertainty about the course of the pandemic, a potential lack of election judges, and the strain on staff and resources were the main reasons for the unanimous vote against the resolution.
“The benefit does not outweigh the risk,” said Commissioner Cory Kirsch.
Jefferson County Clerk and Recorder Bonnie Ramey had submitted a written plan calling for mail ballots for the November presidential election in response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to the vote, there was a lengthy discussion among the commissioners, staff and residents who attended the Sept. 1 meeting.
Ramey said she had 20 experienced election judges on hand and 50 who had recently signed up for training — giving her the minimum amount necessary to man the polls. However, should any of those judges end up not being available, her office would need to call on county employees to work the polls and that would require overtime pay.
Also, if there are not enough judges on election day, that could cause long lines for voters, because once the county commits to opening the polls, it cannot close them, she said.
“If it takes all night, that’s what will have to happen,” said Ramey.
In addition to manpower issues, Ramey outlined the financial impact of opening the polls. It generally costs the county about $28,000 to run an election, she said. Because of the pandemic, the county could get reimbursed $9,000 from the CARES Act for a mail ballot election, which costs about $16,000, said Ramey.
Ramey also pointed out about 74% of Jefferson County residents typically vote absentee anyway.
Resident Dave Cooper said that seemed like an unnecessary risk to open the polls for the roughly 25% of voters who like to vote in person.
Resident Paul Backlund said that, anecdotally, there’s more interest in a mail ballot election than going to the polls.
“Dump this resolution,” he said.
Ramey continued to describe the potential scenario at the polls during a pandemic.
She said election judges can ask voters to wear masks, but cannot require their use as it would be considered a form of disenfranchisement. Plus, poll workers would need to clean the stations and equipment between each voter, which would cause longer lines.
Commission Chairman Leonard Wortman said the resolution stemmed from the fact that the United States was set up for voting in person and that’s how it’s always been done. It wasn’t necessarily due to fears of election fraud from mail-in ballots, he said.
“People are dying to get back to normal,” he said, drawing an analogy between standing in line at Walmart and standing in line to vote when it comes to safety concerns.
Residents can always vote absentee — no one is forcing them to go to the polls, said Wortman.
Registered voters can also still come to the Clerk and Recorder’s Office and vote in person regardless of whether it’s a polling place or mail ballot election, said Ramey.
County Attorney Steve Haddon pointed out given the changing nature of the virus and with the election occurring during the normal flu season, it was not possible to predict what the conditions will be on Nov. 3. If the Commission votes for opening the polls, “this genie does not go back in the bottle,” he said, referring to the fact that once in-person voting is approved, it cannot be changed.
“We have a margin thin number of election judges,” he added.
Kirsch was against putting the election staff at risk, and was concerned about the ever changing nature of the pandemic.
Working with such unknowns could be a huge hardship for the county, said Kirsch.
Commissioner Bob Mullen agreed that there were too many unknowns and encouraged absentee voting, although “I hate to do that.”
In the end, Wortman, while initially “adamant” about in-person voting, indicated that the comments, along with the looming uncertainty, changed his mind.
“What happens if it turns into a wreck at the last minute,” he said.
Ramey said that unlike the primary election in June, her office has had time to prepare and can have drop boxes available, and manned with two election judges. The boxes would not be at each precinct, but located in Whitehall, Boulder, Montana City and Clancy at least 10 days before the election.
Those locations are still being determined and will be published in the near future, said Ramey.
All active and provisionally registered voters will be sent a ballot, she said.
The 2020 primary election, conducted through mail ballots due to the pandemic, generated the highest turnout for a primary, at 69%. Generally, about 70-80% of Jefferson County voters turn out for presidential elections, according to Ramey.
•Download an absentee ballot application at https://sosmt.gov/elections/absentee/
•Sept. 18 — Election administrators must send ballots to absent military and overseas electors as soon as the ballot is printed and not later than this date.
•No earlier than Sept. 28 — Election administrators must publish or broadcast notice specifying the day regular voter registration will close and the availability of late registration. (Three times in the four weeks preceding close of regular registration)
•Oct. 2 — Date by which absentee ballots must be available for voting in person for those counties that “opt-in” to conduct a mail ballot election.
•Oct. 9 — Date by which ballots are mailed to electors on the absentee list. For those counties that are conducting a mail ballot election, date by which ballots are mailed to all active registered voters.
•Oct. 26 — Close of regularvoter registration.
•Oct. 27 — Beginning of late registration.
•Oct. 29 — Registration forms postmarked by October 26 and received by this date are accepted for regular registration.
•Nov. 2 — Noon: - Deadline for election administrator to receive application for absentee ballot. Absentee ballots are issued to late registrants up until this time on the day before election day; late registrants who submit a registration form after noon must return to the election office on election day to receive an absentee ballot.
Information courtesy of the Montana Secretary of State website.