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Election 2020: Early ballot counting starts in Montana

Posted at 11:28 AM, Nov 03, 2020

BILLINGS — A new Montana election law that allows officials to start tabulating votes the day before election day is just what the doctor ordered as Montana moves to an all mail-in election due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Although that new law, Senate Bill 162, was written to deal with a surge in the popularity of absentee ballots, it's timing could not have been better.

"We didn't write the bill thinking there would be a pandemic, so it doesn't solve all of our problems but it sure does help," said Bret Rutherford, Yellowstone County Elections Administrator.

"Senate Bill 162 allowed us to open the ballot secrecy envelopes last Thursday and Friday, and get them flattened out and ready to count," said Rutherford. " We actually started counting the day before election day, which helps out immensely."

Voter turnout in the 2020 election continues to shatter all previous records. As of Monday, Yellowstone County had already surpassed the entire turn out for the 2016 Presidential election.

Rutherford told MTN News he would not be surprised if the number of voted ballots tops 80,000 out of 94,289 that were mailed out, close to an 85% return rate.

As you can imagine, the process of opening and flattening all those ballots to get them ready for counting is labor-intensive and time-consuming.

"It really is, I mean our chokepoint actually is human hands unfolding paper," Rutherford said. "You know the machines run pretty quickly, but you have to wait for the paper to put through them, so it just takes a little bit of time."

Rutherford credits election officials across Montana who saw the surge in the number of people choosing to vote absentee in past elections, and joined forces to get the 2018 legislature to pass the new law to lessen the load on election day and night.

"Right now, if we had not passed 162, we would just be opening the ballots today," said Rutherford. "It would have taken forever. We probably would be counting through Thursday if it wasn't for this new law."

Presidential elections are always stressful for local election officials, but this year takes the cake when it comes to challenges.

"It's been weird, I don't know how else to put it," said Rutherford. "We've had a great turnout, I can't complain about that. It's just the pandemic, and it's a mail ballot for the first time in a federal election, so it's been interesting."

The tense weeks leading up to Tuesday's election were made even worse with numerous lawsuits challenging everything from the mail-in election itself, to the deadline to turn in ballots, to restricting the number of ballots one person could collect and turn in.

"I don't expect the lawsuits to stop," said Rutherford. "I bet they keep going after election day. So we just have to roll with it. If we get new directives, we do what we have to do."

Even with a day jump start on counting the ballots, officials expect some races won't be called until Wednesday afternoon or later.

So patience will be a virtue for everyone as the 2020 election comes to a close. It's definitely been an election year like no other.