Officials in Montana’s second-most populated county support holding an all-mail ballot general election in November. Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman says voting by mail is the logical choice amid a worsening coronavirus pandemic. “We’ve worked closely with the Board of County Commissioners and think having an all-mail election would be a beneficial way to help ensure great voter turnout, help provide the best services we can while keeping everybody safe,” Seaman said. Clerks and recorders recently requested Gov. Steve Bullock allow counties the option of conducting an all-mail ballot general election. Wednesday, Bullock said he’d make a decision by the counties’ recommended Aug. 10 deadline. County elections officials made a similar request to conduct the June 2 primary by mail to avoid crowding and increased exposure to the coronavirus. Bullock agreed and every county opted for all-mail ballot elections.
With fewer than 100 days until Montanans cast ballots, the clerks who run the state’s elections are asking the governor to allow counties the option to conduct the vote by mail. In a letter to Gov. Steve Bullock dated July 24, the Montana Association of Clerk & Recorders/Election Administrators and the Montana Association of Counties (MACo) said that given the novel coronavirus’ spread in Montana and the rapidly approaching Nov. 3 general election, they want to make a decision by Aug. 10. Their letter included a formal request for the mail-ballot option, with an allowance for in-person voting and other adaptions. “Given we are unsure of how long the pandemic will last, Montana’s Clerk & Recorders/Election Administrators want to (and absolutely should be) prepared for the worst, especially given that elections require numerous election judges and enormous groups of people,” reads the letter. Under a directive from Bullock, all 56 counties chose to hold the June 2 primary by mail. Generally Montanans can request an absentee ballot to vote by mail, which has become increasingly popular in recent years, with absentee turnout about 73% in the last election. In June, everyone registered and active as a voter received a ballot by mail with a pre-stamped envelope to return it.
A Montana judge has blocked new state restrictions on the collecting of others’ ballots, a victory for Native American tribes that say their members rely on the help. The law probably violates the tribal members’ right to vote because it would make it especially difficult for them to make sure their own ballots got from reservations and other remote areas to election offices, District Judge Jessica Fehr of Yellowstone County said Tuesday in putting a hold on the requirements. Her injunction, while not final, is nonetheless the latest voting rights victory for people in Indian Country, who say too many election rules disregard their special circumstances and amount to suppression. It’s also the latest turn in the generally partisan battle over so-called ballot harvesting. The American Civil Liberties Union had sued on behalf of several tribes in March, challenging a state law passed in 2017 and endorsed by statewide referendum the next year. It says caregivers, family members and acquaintances can collect no more than six ballots in an election. Proponents say such limits prevent election fraud by preventing partisan operatives from conducting mass collections of mail-in ballots — potentially from both friendly and unfriendly precincts.
A Montana judge issued a ruling Tuesday that blocks the state from enforcing a voter-approved law that restricts the collection of absentee ballots during elections. Tuesday’s ruling from District Judge Jessica Fehr came after the Billings-based judge temporarily halted the Ballot Interference Protection Act two weeks before the June primary election. The law passed by voter referendum in 2018 limits one person to turning in a maximum of six absentee ballots. Fehr wrote the law would “significantly suppress vote turnout by disproportionately harming rural communities.” She said Native Americans in rural tribes across the seven Indian reservation located in Montana would be particularly harmed.
Montana: Lawmakers get update on Native American voting in all-mail primary | Jonathon Ambarian/KTVH
On Friday, a state legislative committee got an update on how Montana’s all-mail primary election went in Indian Country. The State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee wrapped up three days of online meetings Friday. Because of concerns about COVID-19, Gov. Steve Bullock gave Montana counties the option to switch to all-mail ballots for the June 2 election – and all 56 counties took that option. On Friday, the committee heard from four election administrators from counties with large Indian populations – Dulcie Bear Don’t Walk of Big Horn County, Tammy Williams of Blaine County, Katie Harding of Lake County and Joan Duffield of Rosebud County. All four counties had voter turnouts at or below the Montana average in the primary, with Big Horn County having the lowest turnout in the state at 35.4%. However, administrators said there were some positive signs for tribal turnout. Bear Don’t Walk said 25% to 35% turnout is typical for a primary in Big Horn County, and that about 44% of those who were mailed a ballot this year returned them. Williams said Blaine County estimated about 30% turnout in reservation areas, but that overall turnout was again on the high end of what was expected. According to Duffield, turnout in Rosebud County’s Lame Deer precinct was 20% this year, compared to 11% and 10% in the 2016 and 2018 primaries.
Montana: Mail ballot election goes well, but a general election by mail isn’t certain in Montana | Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette
Montana’s first mail-ballot primary election set records for participation and the went fairly well, but it would take a fall emergency to set up a mail ballot general election. That’s because there’s no language in Montana law supporting a mail ballot general election. The exception would be another order by Gov. Steve Bullock giving counties the option of a mail ballot election to protect public health. “It is too early to tell what, if any, steps will need to be taken in the general election to protect the public’s health, while protecting the right to vote,” said Marissa Perry, Bullock’s communications director. “As he did in issuing the primary directive, Gov. Bullock will consult 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 once more is known about how the virus could impact communities in the fall.” More to the point, said state Sen. Doug Cary, R-Billings, the governor’s executive order that triggered the mail ballot primary has a July expiration date. Bullock would need a new, 120-day order to raise the option of a mail ballot general election. The Bullock administration said Thursday that the governor’s current emergency order will last as long as the president’s. The normal, 120-day expiration rule doesn’t apply.
A Montana district court will move forward with a challenge against a state law limiting the number of ballots a person can deliver on others’ behalf. As of now the law is currently blocked ahead of the Jun. 2 primary. On May 29, Judge Jessica Fehr of the Yellowstone County District Court sided with Native American tribes, Western Native Voice and Montana Native Vote in denying the state’s motion in support of the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, or BIPA. BIPA caps the number of ballots a person or group can drop off for someone else at six. The law also requires people to sign a form letting election officials know they’re dropping off another person’s ballot. Lillian Alvernaz with the ALCU of Montana is representing the tribes and advocacy groups. She says BIPA significantly limits the voting rights of people on rural reservations.
The Montana Supreme Court today overruled a lower court order and restored the state’s Jun. 2 mail-in ballot receipt deadline for the upcoming primary. The high court’s order means voters must get their mail-in ballots to their local election office or other drop off locations by 8 p.m. on Election Day. Attorney General Tim Fox asked the state supreme court to address Montana’s ballot receipt deadline the morning of May 27 on behalf of Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. In its five-two decision on May 27, the state Supreme Court’s majority says it retained the ballot receipt deadline to avoid voter confusion and disruption of election administration. Instructions included with primary ballots tell voters to return their envelopes by that deadline.
Montana: Battle over ballot postmark deadline, now set at June 2, continues | Holly Michels/Missoulian
In dueling filings in different courts, the secretary of state and two Democratic groups clashed over an extended deadline for ballots to arrive at elections offices. The action comes a week before the June 2 primary election, which is being held mostly by mail because of the dangers posed by the novel coronavirus. Late last week following a lawsuit by the Montana Democratic Party (MDP) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), a Billings judge ordered that the existing 8 p.m. deadline for mailed ballots to be received by county elections offices would “significantly suppress voter turnout.” Judge Donald Harris extended the deadline so that ballots postmarked by Election Day and received by June 8 will be counted. The secretary of state immediately challenged that order Friday in Yellowstone County District Court, and on Tuesday Attorney General Tim Fox filed a writ of supervisory control with the Montana Supreme Court. In it, they ask for the high court to stay the lower court’s opinion without waiting for the District Court’s ruling on their appeal.
A court ruling that allows election ballots to be counted as long as they are postmarked by June 2 is being challenged by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox. Previously only ballots that arrived by the date of the election could be counted. State District Court Judge Donald Harris on Friday temporarily suspended the state law that said ballots must be received in a county election office by 8 p.m. on election day. Now, ballots that are postmarked by June 2 can still be counted as long as they arrive by the following Monday, the judge said. That Monday, June 8, also is the deadline for receipt of federal write-in ballots for military and overseas voters. The primary is being held by mail because of the coronavirus. Fox, who is running for governor in the Republican primary, said the last-minute suspension could have a negative impact on Montana voters, Lee Newspapers of Montana reporte d. He asked in a court filing for the ruling to be put on hold and for the dispute to be decided by the Supreme Court.
Montana: 600K primary election ballots are in the mail to Montana voters | Jonathon Ambarian/Missoula Current
On Friday, election offices around Montana began sending out ballots for the June primary election, as they do every two years. However, there was a big difference this year: Mail ballots weren’t going just to those who asked for them, but to all active registered voters. In March, Gov. Steve Bullock directed that counties could decide to hold the primary election by mail, to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. All 56 counties took that option. That means traditional local polling places will not be open, though people will be able to vote in person at county election offices. Election officials estimate about 600,000 ballots were mailed out across the state on Friday. About 94,000 more registered voters are considered “inactive,” and will need to contact officials in order to receive a ballot. In Lewis and Clark County, about 40,500 active voters are having ballots mailed to them. Audrey McCue, the county’s elections supervisor, said they have usually had 50% to 60% of their voters request absentee ballots, so it was not as big of a change as it might have been. “That number has gone up, but it’s not a drastic increase for us,” she said.
Montana: Governor: Counties can choose to hold all-mail primary | Holly Michels/Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, under the powers of an emergency declaration he made earlier this month, told counties on Wednesday they can choose to conduct an all-mail election in June. He also expanded early voting. The moves come as Montana is dealing with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which had hit 53 cases statewide by midafternoon Wednesday. Bullock is also requiring counties to implement measures to ensure social distancing during voter registration and voting. Bullock has previously closed public K-12 schools and some business where people gather. Some candidates in the 2020 election had called on the state to move to an all-mail primary, which is June 2. Bullock’s order does not go that far, but allows the option should counties choose to do so. Montanans can also request absentee ballots to vote by mail.
Montana: Officials advocate for voting by mail as COVID-19 calls election processes into question | Tom Lutey/Billings Gazette
Shifting to a mail-ballot only primary might be the safest option for Montana counties, said State Senate President Scott Sales, who is asking Gov. Steve Bullock to apply emergency powers to make it possible. Sales, a Bozeman Republican, said mail ballots would protect from coronavirus Montana seniors who are not only reliable voters, but who also staff polling stations as volunteers. Sales is also one of six GOP candidates for secretary of state, which oversees elections. “The people who come to vote on election day are my age or older, They’re the older generation. They’re the most reliable voters and our election judges and the people who work at the polls are even older than that,” Sales said. “They’re typically in their 70s and 80s. And whether you think this thing is going to get a lot of legs, or not, that is the most vulnerable segment of our society, those folks in that age group.” Sales made his pitch for a primary mail election on Monday. Tuesday, state Sen. Democrat Bryce Bennett, who is also a secretary of state candidate, called for Bullock to make a mail-ballot primary happen. The decision whether to switch to an all-mail primary should be up to individual counties, Sales said, but the governor would have to apply emergency powers to give counties the option. Sales said he spoke to Bullock, a Democrat, about the decision after consulting with legislators and county-level election officials.
Montana: State puts $1.3M toward updating county voting machines | Holly K. Michaels/Helena Independent Record
The Montana Secretary of State’s office announced Tuesday more than $1.3 million in money for counties to update their voting equipment. The money comes from a federal Help American Vote Act and is matched with county funds. Counties will be able to purchase new Express Vote voting equipment with the funding. “This is a big step in the right direction for counties to upgrade election technology that strengthens Montana’s election security ahead of 2020,” Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said in a press release announcing the funding. The new equipment is meant to ease voting access for people with disabilities. However, at a meeting of the State Administrative and Veterans Affairs hearing Tuesday, Beth Brenneman, attorney for Disability Rights Montana, said that because of how the Express Vote machines function, they may present some issues for voters who are blind. Joel Peden, advocacy coordinator with the Montana Independent Living Project, voiced more concerns to the interim committee about access to voting for those with disabilities. He said some machines, either new or old, don’t provide enough privacy for voters to feel comfortable their vote is secret.
The Montana Secretary of State’s office plans to sign-off on a new touchscreen voting system designed for voters with disabilities that could be used at county polling sites as early as this November. The ExpressVote system resembles a touchscreen desktop computer or ATM. Voters insert a ballot, scroll through pages of candidates or initiatives and make their picks, and then hit print. The system includes audio, visual, and other aids designed to help individuals with disabilities vote. A separate machine does the vote counting. The Secretary of State’s Office and system developer ES&S ran demonstrations of the device Monday in the state Capitol ahead of an official certification event scheduled Tuesday. Staff with the Secretary’s office say the ExpressVote system is replacing an outdated device from the early 2000s that was also designed for people with disabilities. The state is using $750,000 of a $3 million federal grant to buy the equipment, with counties chipping in matching funds if they want to take part in the upgrade.
The modernization of Montana’s voter registration system won’t happen in time for next year’s elections, because the state’s top election administrator has concluded the new software cannot be installed and its security assured in time. The decision was made by Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who has something of a vested interest in his decision. He’s a leading GOP candidate for the state’s singular and reliably Republican seat in the House of Representatives in 2020. But Stapleton was pressed to make the decision by the association of the state’s county clerks, who said the system in place for 15 years was good enough for one more election. “It would seem more reasonable to begin this immense change-over outside of a presidential cycle, which could be one of the biggest in our lifetimes,” they told the secretary of state. “The current project development timeline is simply too aggressive and stands to put the election process in Montana at risk.”
Montana: After elections administrators voice concern, new voter system won’t roll out until 2021 | Holly K. Michels/The Missoulian
The secretary of state is backing away from plans to implement a new election system for Montana before 2020 after elections administrators around the state raised concerns about the aggressive timeline. In a July 24 letter to the head of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton wrote that “it does not appear to me that we will be able to implement a new voter registration system this year.” County elections administrators had previously told Stapleton they had “grave concerns” over a plan to replace the existing MontanaVotes system with a new ElectMT system before 2020, as reported by the Montana Free Press. The 2020 elections are expected to see the highest voter turnout in Montana history — it’s a presidential election year, with two federal offices and all the statewide elected officials up for election, plus other state-level, legislative and local races, and ballot initiatives. “The whole association is extremely excited with the decision to wait and not roll it out in the 2020 election,” said Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders President Stephanie Verhasselt, who is the Richland County clerk and recorder. “We do believe when the new system comes out, once we get it working and everyone trained, I think it will have a lot of features we like.”
Montana: Secretary of State Corey Stapleton plans to implement new election software in 2020. Election officials worry that’s too fast. | Alex Sakariassen/Montana Free Press
County elections officials are expressing “grave concerns” over Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s plan to implement a new statewide election system in time for the 2020 elections. Stapleton’s plan calls for Montana counties to begin transitioning from the state’s decade-old Montana Votes election system to a new suite of election software as early as January. Stapleton’s office inked an exclusive $2 million contract with South Dakota-based information technology company BPro on April 30. Missoula County Chief Administrative Officer Vickie Zeier said the secretary’s staff in early June assured county officials that a final determination on the state’s readiness for the transition will not be made until December. However, emails acquired through a public-records request show Stapleton’s office set its sights on implementing the new software in time for the 2020 elections months ago. In a June 20 letter to Stapleton, the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders (MACR) called that timeline “very worrisome,” adding, “our suggested implementation goal would be 2021.”
Montana: Bill would again attempt to regulate accuracy of election materials | Helena Independent Record
A state legislator is trying to clarify what kind of information can go on the campaign flyers sure to fill mailboxes across Montana during the 2020 election cycle. House Bill 139, introduced by Rep. Kimberly Dudik, a Democrat from Missoula, would require printed election material referencing another candidate’s voting record to provide specific bill numbers, the year of the vote and titles of bills or resolutions. References to another candidate’s statements would require the date and location the statement was made.
Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton plans to replace the state’s voter registration system and pay for improvements to its election cyber security programs with a $3 million federal grant. The money is part of $380 million in grants President Donald Trump budgeted for election security across the nation against a backdrop of threats from Russia and others. Montana is putting up $150,000 as a 5 percent match for the grant. Stapleton outlined the plan in a letter to members of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, a group that administers the grants, sent out Wednesday. The state received the money, but the program required Stapleton provide details on how it would be spent.
The Montana Democratic Party, assisted by a prestigious international law firm, is taking Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton to court over approving signatures that allowed the Green Party to qualify for the general election. Green Party spokesperson Danielle Breck said the Montana Democrats have a date in Helena District Court on Tuesday afternoon. “The Montana Democratic Party, along with a couple of individuals, have filed suit against the Secretary of State saying that 180 of the more than 7,300 signatures that he validated of the more than 10,000 we turned in, are not valid, and therefore we should be removed from the ballot,” said Breck. “Tomorrow (Tuesday) there is a hearing to show cause and the Democrats have to show cause to move forward with the case.”
The Montana Democratic Party failed to identify the issues and candidates that benefited from its spending of about $375,000 on the 2016 general election, the state’s top election watchdog found. Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan also found that the party failed to include Supreme Court candidate Dirk Sandefur on a list of candidates it was supporting. He referred the case to the Lewis and Clark County attorney for potential prosecution, but his Dec. 5 finding said such cases are usually settled with a civil fine.
Montana: At Secretary of State’s behest, county elections delves into ballot rejection process | The Missoulian
The May special election to find Montana’s new congressional representative just keeps coming back into play. Tuesday, Missoula County Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors told the County Commission about her office’s survey into their handling of rejected ballots. The survey was done at the request of Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who, according to Connors asked the same of each Montana county elections office. And if the local offices didn’t want to, his office would. Stapleton’s request for the surveys came after an email exchange between him and Connors that was made public after the commissioners decided to respond. In the emails, Stapleton accused Missoula County of not taking voter fraud seriously and asked “why 91 illegal signatures on mail ballots are once again going to be silently set aside on the shelf of indifference.”
Montana’s secretary of state said Tuesday that he’s looked into whether there was election fraud during this May’s special election and hasn’t seen any evidence showing a coordinated effort to cast mismatched, or illegal, signatures on ballots. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton raised the issue of potential voter fraud in August. At a meeting with state lawmakers, he said that just because it hasn’t happened in Montana before doesn’t mean it’s not happening now. But in a Tuesday afternoon phone conference with clerks, Stapleton said that after examining results from a survey of illegal ballots from the May 25 special election, he now believes Montana has a healthy election system that could use some improvement.
Montana: Donors once again much more limited in contributions to Montana candidates | Associated Press
Montana’s limits on direct contributions to political campaigns are justified in trying to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption while still allowing candidates to raise enough money to run a campaign, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday. The decision overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell, who in May 2016 said the limits enacted by voters in 1994 restricted political speech. “This lawsuit … sought to open the floodgates of money in Montana elections by making it easier for out-of-state corporations to buy officeholders,” Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement. “I’m glad the federal courts upheld Montana’s limits on money in elections. “For a century in Montana, winning an election for state office has meant going door to door and meeting face to face with everyday voters: democracy at its best. Today, we’re one step closer to keeping it that way. Elections should be decided by ‘we the people’ — not by corporations, millionaires, or wealthy special interests buying more television ads,” he said.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said in a letter read by his chief of staff to a legislative committee Thursday that he never made any allegations of 360 cases of voter fraud in the May 25 special election and that media reports were incorrect. “I made no such statement,” Stapleton said in the Sept. 14 letter to Sen. Sue Malek, chair of the State Administration and Veterans Affairs Interim Committee. And he added he would “ask you to correct the public record to the extent that you can.” Malek had invited Stapleton to the meeting saying she wanted him to come and provide more information on the “360 cases of voter fraud” that he discussed at SAVA’s July 20 meeting.
The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a judgment against a former state lawmaker from Bozeman who was fined $68,000 for having been found to have accepted and failed to report illegal corporate contributions. The court’s ruling affirmed a Lewis and Clark County jury decision in April 2016 against former Republican Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman. The civil case was brought against Wittich, then a state senator, by Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, who at the time was Jonathan Motl. After a five-day trial, 10 of 12 jurors found that Wittich violated campaign finance laws during his 2010 state Senate campaign for District 35 by accepting nearly $20,000 in in-kind contributions from the National Right to Work Committee.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s allegations of voter fraud in Montana has widened a rift with elections officers across the state, some of whom want the elections chief to dial back his rhetoric. As they prepare to meet for their annual convention Tuesday, elections officials are hoping to rebuild relations with Stapleton, whose combative style has left some put off. “We are hoping for better communications with the secretary of state, and I’m hopeful that will happen in the near future,” said Regina Plettenberg, the election administrator from Ravalli County and president of the Montana Association of Clerk & Recorders and Election Administrators. Tensions have been building for months amid turmoil within Stapleton’s administration. Stapleton has been without a communications director since May. Two weeks ago, Stapleton’s director of elections and voter services, Derek Oestreicher, abruptly departed after a falling out that neither side wants to discuss publicly. And on Monday, a former deputy chief of staff, Stephanie Hess, began working for the state Auditor’s office.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has called for more thorough reviews of rejected ballots to identify cases of voter fraud, sparking an email feud with Missoula County and frustrating other election officials from Republican and Democratic counties who see no evidence of a broken system. Stapleton, who took office in January, is the first Montana Secretary of State in memory to declare a crackdown on voter fraud as a priority. The Republican’s policy shift mirrors similar efforts cropping up in other states, where the GOP has secured a growing number of the top election posts, and as President Donald Trump has asserted – with no evidence to date – that he lost the popular election because of millions of illegal votes.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said Tuesday he’d oppose any effort to allow Montanans to change absentee ballot votes that are cast before Election Day. Most states, like Montana, do not allow early voters to change their minds. That became an issue last month when then-candidate Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter a little over 24 hours before his election as Montana’s sole representative in the U.S. House. Reaction to the assault sparked questions by those who had already voted if they could change their ballots. By then 259,558 of the 383,301 who would cast a ballot had already voted, or nearly 68 percent. “I would be very much opposed to letting people change their vote,” Stapleton told a legislative interim committee Tuesday in response to a question about if he would support a change in the law. “I think it’s much better to wait until Election Day and (vote) once.”