Ballot initiative would prevent ballot harvesting, elections offices have safeguards in place to prevent fraud

County elections officials have processed 8,082 ballots as of Friday afternoon of the 33,008 that were mailed.

Those ballots include a measure that, if approved, would prohibit ballot harvesting, or the collection of multiple ballots.

Proponents of the measure argue it would limit voter fraud, but opponents say the law would create barriers and is an attempt to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

As proposed, the law would prohibit anyone other than election officials; U.S. postal workers or others authorized by law to transmit U.S. mail; caregivers; family members; household members; or an acquaintance from knowingly collecting a voter’s voted or unvoted ballot.

Caregivers, family members, household members and acquaintances would be limited to collecting no more than six ballots.

Mail only elections supported by Cascade County officials

The law would require those authorized to collect and convey ballots to sign a registry when they deliver the ballots to an election administrator’s office. They’d also have to provide their name, address, phone number; as well as the voter’s name and address; and the individual’s relationship to the voter.

It also includes a $500 penalty for each ballot unlawfully collected.

But, the proposed law doesn’t specify a number of details that elections officials need to know.

If it’s a handwritten book of personal information and signatures, elections officials would have no way efficient way of logging and tracking that information to verify that someone hasn’t come back with multiple batches of ballots.

More importantly, if someone says they’re a spouse, family member, friend, etc, “how do you know,” said Rina Fontana Moore, Cascade County clerk and recorder.

If people have to sign the registry to return ballots, Moore said there are questions as to whether the outside delivery boxes go away and how the law would be applied to someone dropping ballots in the mailbox.

A similar law passed in 2016 in Arizona and has been subject to several legal challenges. Fifteen other states regulate ballot collection in some way, according to The Pew Charitable Trusts.

In the 2018 voter guide, the initiative’s supporters state Sen. Albert Olszewski, Rep. Jeff Essmann and Joe Lamm wrote that during the 2016 election, some Missoula County voters gave their ballots to someone who asked how they voted, causing some concern.

At the time, the Montana Secretary of State’s office recommended that voters not give their ballots to strangers, but the supporters wrote that the law would allow voters to turn away strangers and have local authorities come to their aid.

Photo identification is required to register to vote, but if someone doesn’t have a permanent address, the elections office can use other documents and social security numbers to verify a person’s identity, Moore said.

The Cascade County chief election official is also the clerk and recorder and the offices pull the death records right up until the ballots are mailed to avoid sending a ballot to the deceased.

All issued ballots have barcodes that are assigned to voters so the elections office can track ballots. In the event that someone moves, doesn’t receive a ballot and comes into the election office for a replacement, but then receives the original mailed ballot, they’ll only be able to vote once since the original would have been voided in the system when the elections office issued a replacement ballot, Moore said.

“It would be pretty hard to vote twice,” Moore said.

To be issued a replacement ballot, voters have to come into the elections office with identification and fill out a form. Those forms and ballots are also tracked.

One of the biggest misconceptions related to elections, Moore said, is that the state’s MT Votes system is connected to the vote counting machine. They two are not connected, she said, and the number of ballots counted has to match the number of ballots recorded in the MT Votes system.

Moore recommended that spouses return their ballots in the correct envelope instead of combining their ballots in a single envelope since ballots without a matching signature can’t be accepted.

Elections staff have already started setting aside ballots that were returned without signatures or mismatched signatures so they can contact those voters to correct the issue.

Moore said that if anyone has concerns about the voting process, their ballots or election safeguards, they’re welcome to come to the office and ask.

Residents can register to vote at the elections office up until Oct. 29, when the staff moves to Exhibition Hall at the fairgrounds and registration is open there until election day, with the exception of 12-5 p.m. on Nov. 5 for elections offices statewide to update their registers.