Officials from counties around Montana came to the Capitol Monday, asking lawmakers to let them conduct the election for Rep. Ryan Zinke’s congressional seat by mail ballot. The Senate State Administration Committee held an initial hearing on Senate Bill 305, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls. The bill would give counties the choice of whether to have traditional polling places or only mail ballots for the upcoming special election. The committee heard from dozens of commissioners and elections officials, from counties ranging from Richland to Ravalli. They argue that counties are already facing an unexpected cost to run the election, and switching to all-mail ballots could save them each tens of thousands of dollars. In larger counties like Missoula, Yellowstone and Gallatin, those savings could be closer to $100,000.
“I think it’s the most efficient way that we can manage a short election cycle like this for a single thing,” said John Ostlund, a Yellowstone County commissioner.
Other officials said the unusual timeline for this election would make setting up polling places especially difficult. “For a federal election, it takes two years to plan, for staffing, for polling place locations,” said Rebecca Connors, Missoula County’s election administrator. “We have less than three months to be able to coordinate.”
Once Zinke resigns his seat in Congress, Gov. Steve Bullock must call a special election to be held within 85 to 100 days. Zinke is expected to be confirmed as U.S. Secretary of the Interior next week, which would put the election somewhere in late May or June.