Mail only elections supported by Cascade County officials

Local officials are continuing to support mail ballot voting.

Elections officials statewide have been pursuing mail ballots for roughly 30 years and it was included as a legislative issue affecting the City of Great Falls and Cascade County during a late August forum with area lawmakers.

Such a change would require legislative action.

In Cascade County, turnout is high with mail ballots and opening the polls is costly, particularly in rural areas where it’s difficult to staff polls.

In the November 2016 federal election, 80 percent of the 35,999 voters in the county voted by mail, according to county officials.

The June 2017 special election, that included polling stations, cost the county $83,000, compared to the 2018 school election, which was conducted exclusively by mail, cost the county $48,000, according to county data.

Mail only elections could save the state an estimated $2 million to $4 million, Moore said.

Rina Fontana Moore, the Cascade County Clerk and Recorder, said that if it’s not a mail only election, the county typically needs 85 election judges and that costs $135 to $150 per person for the day.

Rural polls require a minimum of three people to simply open the poll, Moore said.

During the June primary, some rural polls couldn’t find enough people so her office had to send elections staff, which is more costly to the county.

Belt, Centerville, Cascade, Ulm, Vaughn and Sun River have rural polls. Moore said they’re seriously considering consolidating Sun River into Vaughn and Centerville into Great Falls. There’s also some discussion of consolidating Ulm into Great Falls.

All of those actions would have to go through public hearings and the County Commission.

If the state moves to mail only elections, Moore said there would likely be rural drop boxes.

“It would only be fair to those people,” Moore said.

Should the state switch to mail only elections, ballots would still be available at the county elections office 30 days before an election. Ballots are mailed 25 days before an election.

That leaves roughly a month for voters to figure out if they didn’t receive a ballot and take care of any change of address or registration issues, Moore said.

Ballots could still be returned at the elections office, as the process currently works.

Under Montana law, ballots aren’t forwardable through the mail and any ballot that can’t be delivered comes back to the elections office. They’ll then send a letter to the voter and that letter is forwardable and contains information on how to update their information to ensure a ballot gets to the voter.

Moore said elections staff makes every effort to find voters when ballots are returned and if the voter doesn’t get back to staff, they are inactivated on the voter rolls.

“Montana has the most progressive election laws in the country,” Moore said.

Cascade County pays for federal and county elections. The city and school district pay for their elections.

About 76 percent of Cascade County residents vote by mail, Moore said, so the county is opening polls and the remaining 24 percent and there’s never 100 percent voter turnout.

During one recent election, three people voted at the Centerville poll, Moore said.

Last November, about 7,000 people voted at the polls. During that same election, 28,000 to 30,000 voted by mail, she said.

Moore said every year she’s been in office, elections officials statewide have tried to get mail only elections in Montana.

Moore said the shift is unanimously supported by the clerk and recorders and elections officials statewide since there’s so much control in the voting system.

Currently, if a voter doesn’t receive their ballot, they can go to the elections office for a ballot. The one that wasn’t received will be voided in the system so if someone else were to get ahold of it and attempt to vote, the system would reject it, Moore said.

If they went to mail only elections, county staff would still go to Exhibition Hall on election day for collecting ballots, registration and that’s where the county machines are, Moore said.