Cascade County opts for mail election for November

Cascade County Commissioners voted unanimously Aug. 18 to conduct the November general election by mail ballot.

In-person voting will still be available and ballots will only be mailed to active registered voters in the county. Residents can register to vote up until election day either at the county elections office in the Courthouse Annex at 325 2nd Avenue North. Election operations move to Exhibition Hall closer to the election in November.

The mail ballot election has been recommended by health agencies due to COVID-19. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock issued an executive order earlier this month allowing counties to make their own determination for expanding voting by mail.

Cascade County considering mail ballot for November election during Aug. 18 special meeting

Most elections in Cascade County are conducted by mail and have been for about 14 years, according to County Elections Administrator Rina Moore.

Under state law, federal and statewide elections are typically done as a poll election, meaning counties operate full polling places on election day though in Cascade County, most people opt to receive their ballot by mail.

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Moore said that in a poll election for November, the county would need 146 election judges, who are paid and trained by the county. For a mail ballot, they’d only need about 33, she said. Additional maintenance staff would also be needed for cleaning and the health guidelines for distancing and capacity indoors would restrict the number of people allowed into the building to vote at any time, causing long lines outside, Moore said. Her office estimated that wait times would be 2-4 hours on election day.

“Logistically this could be a nightmare,” Moore said of conducting an election by poll in November.

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In 2016, there were long wait times in Cascade County for those registering to vote on election day. Residents are able to register to vote in the elections office now and elections officials recommend registering in advance to avoid long wait times on election day.

A mail ballot for the November election would save the county, and taxpayers, an estimated $27,017, Moore said.

As of Aug. 17, there are 46,982 registered voters. That includes active and inactive voters. Inactive voters are those who received a ballot in the last election but it was returned undeliverable and have not responded to the elections office’s attempts at contact to update their information.

Of those, 39,949 are active voters and of those, 34,814 have chosen to vote by mail, or 88 percent of local voters.

That leaves 5,135 voters who are registered, which requires proof of identification, who did not choose a mail ballot but will receive one this fall.

“Voting by mail is not new to us,” Moore said during the Aug. 18 special commission meeting.

There are rumors that the deceased will receive ballots and someone will be able to use them fraudulently. The county elections administrator is also the clerk and recorder and the voter rolls are checked against the county’s death list. In the event that a ballot is mailed to someone who’s deceased, most often it’s returned and the voter rolls are updated, Moore said. Again, the signature on the envelope would have to match the signature on file, so it’s unlikely someone could fraudulently vote the ballot of a deceased person, Moore said.

Voter rolls are also checked biannually against the National Change of Address registry and sent confirmation mailings to ensure that ballots are sent to the correct address. All signatures on affirmation envelopes are checked against the exhibits in the voter’s records. lf the signature is forged, it will most likely be rejected as a “signature mismatch” and would not be counted, according to Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders.

In Cascade County, ballots will be mailed Oct. 8 to registered, active voters. The county has paid the postage to return ballots by mail but voters can also return them in person to the county elections office, which the majority of voters do here, Moore said. If you don’t receive a ballot by Oct. 13, the elections office asks voters to call 454-6803 or 454-6804 to resolve the issue.

If a voter wants to bring their ballot to Exhibition Hall and fill it out there and return it, they may.

Moore told The Electric that there have been no complaints of voter fraud or ballot tampering in Cascade County.

If a voter doesn’t receive their ballot, makes an error on their ballot or the ballot gets damaged, they can go to the elections office to get a new ballot.

All ballots are barcoded and when a ballot is returned or exchanged for a new one, or lost, the county system voids the original ballot so that if someone were to try to use it, the system would not accept that ballot, Moore said.

Ballots must also be returned in an envelope that voters sign and that signature is verified by elections officials with the signature on file for that voter. If it’s not signed or the signature doesn’t match, elections staff will contact the voter to get it signed or verify that it’s their signature.

There are no universal ballots in Montana and the ballots are designed per county and include candidates for a voters individual precinct, so it may not match their friends or neighbors ballots based on precinct lines, Moore said.

Mailers encouraging people to register to vote absentee have been distributed in the county by the Patriot Foundation. Moore said that has no affiliation with the county and it appears that the political action group has been sending those mailers to people already registered to vote absentee in Cascade County.

Elections staff has received thousands of those application forms and has gone through all of them. Moore said they found three people who weren’t already registered to vote absentee in the forms.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said the county isn’t immune to election tampering, but has confidence in the county elections staff and the process in place here.

“To me this is really not a big change,” Briggs said, but again raised concerns with the governor’s emergency powers and suggested that state lawmakers look at that during the next session.

He raised concerns in April that the governor’s authority didn’t allow him to change an election that is addressed in state statute, and said Tuesday that he was surprised no one from either political party had challenged it in court in the meantime.