Bullock gives counties option to do June primary by mail due to COVID-19; Cascade County will do mail ballot

Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive on March 25 allowing counties to expand mail voting and early voting for the June primary.

“This is about protecting Montanans’ right to vote at a time we face unprecedented challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bullock said in a release. “Locally elected officials best understand the voting needs of their communities, and taking this action now ensures they will have the time to make the right decisions for their localities. I feel confident we can protect both the public’s health and the right to vote with this direction.”

Bullock’s directive contains three central components:

  • Providing school districts with additional time to choose to conduct mail ballot elections
  • Allowing counties the choice to conduct mail ballot elections and expand early voting for the June 2 primary election
  • Requiring counties to establish, implement, and enforce social distancing policies at polling locations, designated drop-off locations, or other public-facing portions of facilities involved in voting.

Rina Moore, Cascade County elections official, told The Electric, that Cascade County will do a mail ballot for the June primary and conduct the May school election on time based on the governor’s directive.

March 24 COVID-19 updates: School closures, dine-in restrictions extended to April 10; Catholic schools closed through May 4; election updates; county landfill changes; changes to GFPD operations, city animal shelter; GF Clinic now accepting homemade masks;

She said the county elections office would publicize the change and likely send out letters to voters.

On March 24, Moore told The Electric that the county is encouraging voters to request absentee ballots to reduce the number of people at the polls in June, lessening the health danger of COVID-19 to elections judges, many of whom fall into the at-risk population for the virus, and to the general population.

Few file for county commission, clerk of court seats

Moore said the county elections office sent letters to the 3,700 active voters who currently use the polls asking them to vote absentee.

“The elections office would like to take into consideration our current elections judges whose ages range from 70-80 and for the general public’s health,” according to the letter. “The elections office would like to control the congestion of the crowd at our polls in order to practice our social distancing. We would like to keep everyone safe and healthy for this election season.”

March 23 COVID-19 update: Beer Week moved to September; city planning office closing to public; county goes to phase 3, significantly adjusting staffing; city commission affirms declaration of emergency and expanding city manager’s authority; free addiction counseling; Bullock issues directive on hospital capacity, medical supplies

Moore said a number of people had responded and opted for the mailed ballot but some still want to vote at the polls. They have the option to choose the mail ballot for just the June primary election and then go back to the polls.

Election judges are paid county employees for election day and qualify for workman’s compensation, so Moore said there are questions regarding the county’s liability should they contract COVID-19 while working the polls.

March 22 COVID-19 updates: CCHD provides more information on Cascade County cases; Great Falls Clinic offering telehealth options; local hospitals not accepting handmade masks; St. Vincent de Paul updates services

The county elections office will soon send letters to the 8,700 inactive voters in an attempt to update their voter status and also recommend they vote by mail in the primary.

A voter becomes inactive by not voting in the last presidential election and not responding to two attempts by the elections office to update their information. Often it’s people who have moved away, Moore said.

March 21 COVID-19 update: 3 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Cascade County; WIC offices close to public; CCHD shares additional guidance about gathering restrictions; Symphony reschedules Jubilee concert

Countywide, there are 45,705 active and inactive voters. Of those, 36,952 are active and of those 31,771 are absentee, according to county figures.

For the school election, there are a total of 40,042 active and inactive voters. Of those, 31,942 are active and of those, 27,589 are absentee.

Jim Stone filed to run against Jim Larson for county commission.

Tina Henry is running unopposed for clerk of court.

The filing deadline for county seats was March 9.

The school board candidates so far are: Jan Cahill and Kim Skornogoski, both incumbents, as well as Eric Hinebauch and Bill Bronson.

GFPS sending $1.75 million levy to May ballot

The filing deadline for the school election is 5 p.m. March 26.

The May school ballot also includes a $1.75 million levy.

March 20 COVID-19 updates: Library offering curbside pickup; Malmstrom AFB raises health protection level; Cascade County declares emergency; county jail still accepting offenders; Bullock orders closures of dine-in food and beverage businesses; Showdown closing; GFPS food drive today at Bison Ford; Great Falls Rescue Mission adjusting operations

Bullock consulted with county election administrators, public health experts, emergency management professionals, the Secretary of State, and political leaders from both parties to determine the safest way to proceed with school elections and the June primary while protecting the rights of Montanans to vote safely, according to a release.

Statutory deadlines and other requirements involved in preparing for the primary election require actions by counties as early as next week, according to the release from the governor’s office.

“As cases of COVID-19 continue to grow across the United States and in Montana, the CDC has encouraged states to use voting methods that limit direct contact. Additionally, other jurisdictions have identified traditional election procedures as posing an enhanced risk to public health and human safety. The same factors are present in Montana’s typical election procedures, and by acting now, Montana can make appropriate adjustments to hold a fair and accessible June primary election while minimizing community transmission of COVID-19,” according to the governor’s release.

The directive provides that even when a county decides to adopt a mail ballot for the June primary election, Montanans may vote in person during the 30-day voting window—even if they have received a mail ballot.

If counties opt in to mail voting for the June primary, they must promptly submit plans to do so. Mail ballots would be released on May 8 and early voting would be available in person through the close of the primary election on June 2, according to the governor’s directive.

Voters will not be required to pay postage to return their ballots by mail, according to the release.

The directive also requires additional measures by counties, regardless of their voting procedures, to implement social distancing guidelines to make voter registration and voting safer for all Montanans and reduce spreading COVID-19 within communities. Counties are responsible for ensuring a minimum of six feet of distancing between individuals at polling locations, designated drop-off locations, or public-facing portions of facilities involved in voting. The directive also extends the close of regular voter registration until 10 days before the election to minimize the need for in-person registration or lines, according to the release.

Here’s more information issued in a March 26 release from Cascade County Clerk and Recorder/Election Administrator Rina Moore:

“Governor Bullock released a Directive Implementing Executive Order 2-2020 and 3-2020
and providing measures to implement the 2020 June primary election safely. Executive Orders 2- 2020 and 3-2020 declare a state of emergency in Montana due to the global outbreak of COVID-19 Novel Coronavirus. The Montana Constitution requires purity of elections and guarding against abuses of the electoral process. Further, the constitution allows any citizen of the United States 18 years or older who meets the registration and residence requirements is a qualified elector.

As Cascade Counties Elected Election Administrator, I have a sworn duty to ensure all electors in this county have access to the voting process as prescribed by the Montana Constitution, law and rule. Therefore, the decision to conduct a mail only election is to ensure all qualified electors have access to the polling process and to protect the health, safety and welfare of our citizens, employees and our election judges.
“Montanans should never have to choose between their safety and their democracy,” said Governor Bullock. “Fortunately, Montana already has a simple, clear, well-established set of procedures in law that govern mail elections.”
Cascade County employs 110 temporary election judges, as required by law, to assist on election day at the certified polling locations. Many of these judges are in the CDC’s high-risk age category for contracting the novel coronavirus and more likely to suffer a severe infection. It would be very difficult to implement social distancing guidelines when there are over 100 employees at the Expo Park central polling location, who will interact with 3,000-5,000 voters in a tightly confined space. Furthermore, 8,270 of the electorate in Cascade County have already requested a mail ballot.
Therefore, at the direction of the Governor’s Executive Orders 2-2020 and 3-2020, his letter dated March 25, 2020, and to ensure all qualified electors have a safe and secure manner in which they may carry out their constitutional right to vote, but most importantly to protect the health, safety and welfare of all our employees and citizens of Cascade County the June 2 primary will be held by a mail only ballot.”