On May 8, Jefferson County mailed 7,965 ballots to residents for the June 2 election – which will feature party primaries for governor and other state executives and U.S. and state legislators as well as local ballot initiatives.
Bonnie Ramey was in charge of getting those ballots out the door, and of complying with the requirements of Governor Steve Bullock’s directive that allowed all-mail balloting to counter health risks from the novel coronavirus. As the county’s Election Administrator (as well as Clerk and Recorder, Assessor, and Surveyor) she’s responsible for making sure that voting and elections are accessible and fair.
Ramey, who has served in that role since 1985, spoke with The Monitor about the quick pivot her office made following the directive and what voters should expect leading up to Voting Day. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Monitor: Governor Bullock’s March 25 directive allowed counties to choose whether to go to an all-mail ballot for the primary. Every county ultimately did so. Did you have to think twice about that?
Ramey: We had to make a decision quickly, and the County Commissioners and I did hold a discussion with the County Attorney. Part of the reason we decided to go with a mail ballot is that most of our voting judges are in the at-risk age group. And so many of the supplies that would have been required, like masks and disinfectant wipes, were unavailable in the quantities that would have been needed for seven polling places. To this day, we still haven’t received the paper masks we ordered. And hand sanitizers, disinfectant spray, all of that was off the shelves in town. (Later, we got hand sanitizer when a brewery in Butte started making it; I ordered 36 cases for all the county offices.)
So, then you had about six weeks before ballots had to go in the mail. What did you do?
We already had instructions and envelopes for absentee ballots [which require mailing]. But all those instructions had to be rewritten. And we had to order more envelopes. That was a problem: There weren’t enough envelopes out there. Our vendor in Billings went around to every store there and couldn’t find them. She told us that manufacturers weren’t getting them to distributors. We heard from other county clerks that they were seeing the same problem. In the end, I had to go to our basement and get old envelopes from previous mailings, and re-label them.
You had to get a lot more ballots in the mail than usual. Did you cut it close?
We got the ballots April 23, and we worked right up until the day before [the May 8 mailing deadline]. We had to use my entire office to space everyone out enough — the employees, temps, and volunteers — to get the envelopes stuffed.
The governor’s directive requires counties to supply return postage. Plus there were all those envelopes. How much is vote-by-mail costing the county?
I don’t know the net expense yet; I’m putting together an estimate so I can apply for grants to cover the additional expense. There were the envelopes and postage, though I’ll put in a request with the federal government for reimbursement of the postage. And we hired a lot more temps to do the stuffing. We are saving the cost of the judges.
What happens next?
The process is exactly the same (as absentee ballots), but instead of 53% of the voters [voting by mail], it will be 100%. The big difference is, we're not preparing for judges and polling places. At the county office, we’ll still have booths set up for people who don’t want to vote by mail. And we’ve had to reorganize the office to accommodate that. The first thing you’ll see is a sign that says: “Stop, if you don’t see anyone in front of you, you can advance to the next line.” And then a series of blue tape lines and signs telling you where to go. We closed the side door facing the courthouse to incoming traffic, so everyone has to enter from South Monroe Street; and then we put up snow fencing to keep traffic on the sidewalk.
How do you think this will affect turn-out?
Normally [for an election of this sort] we’ll get a 57% or 58% turnout. But the school election turn-out [which also involved mailed ballots] was the best they’ve ever seen: usually they have about a 34% turnout, but Montana City School got 57.45%, its best ever, and Jefferson High had 43.8%. I’m hoping that means the primary turnout will also be higher.
That’s great. Because a mailed ballot is easier for many people, right?
Yes. We just encourage people to leave a week for their ballot to get to us; don’t expect to mail it on June 1 and for us to count it June 2. That said, we contact all our post offices, and even East Helena, and if a ballot is mailed late and it’s sitting on the counter on June 1, they’ll call us and we’ll pick it up. In 2018, I even had some postal workers who just brought those ballots to us.
Do you see a downside to voting by mail?
There are people who really enjoy going to the polling place. It’s a way to see people they haven’t seen in a while. It’s a social aspect. Those people can still come to the county office. They can vote in a booth if they want to, or use the new ExpressVote machine [which is geared for voters with accessibility challenges].
And what will happen for the November election?
The governor will have to issue a directive. I assume it’s going to be at the polling place, and that we’ll have to be prepared for social distancing. It may be that in some of our locations, polling won’t work that well [with distancing restrictions]. I’ve started thinking about those, but I haven’t figured it out.”
You have a primary vote to count first.
Yes. We’ve never had this before. I hope what we saw in the school elections turns out to be the case.