MISSOULA — With the pivotal November election bearing down and the pandemic expected to linger, Missoula County is asking Gov. Steve Bullock to give counties the option of holding all-mail elections and to make the decision soon.
Bullock permitted an all-mail election for the June primary. County election offices across the state are planning now for November and how they’ll conduct a smooth election in the face of a growing pandemic.
“We’d like them to make a decision as soon as possible so we can plan, be cost-effective toward taxpayers and help make sure we notify voters of what we’re doing in November,” said Bradley Seaman, the elections supervisor for Missoula County.
The concerns of holding the election in the standard polling places comes with a long list of concerns, Seaman said. Among them, many election judges are considered members of the high-risk population given their age, and asking them to staff polling places would place them at unnecessary risk.
Seaman said that holding a polling place election also costs more money. Staffing the county’s 28 polling places requires around 650 paid election judges. The county only has 300 trained election judges and would need to double that number if Bullock doesn’t permit an all-mail election.
“This is a big concern because we’d work on online training, and we do pay for our election judges’ training, and it’s an additional cost,” Seaman said. “If we go to an all-mail election we would not utilize all our judges.”
Back in March with the pandemic only surfacing in Montana, Bullock issued a directive to ensure all eligible Montanans can safely vote in the election by allowing counties to expand voting by mail and early voting.
At the time, Bullock said, “locally elected officials best understand the voting needs of their communities.” Taking such action, he added, effectively protected public health and the right to vote.
Five months later, the number of COVID-19 cases in Montana is pushing 3,000, with more than 1,170 cases considered active. Local election officials believe holding a polling place election under such conditions poses an unnecessary risk.
Seaman said Bullock is expected to make a decision by the end of August, though that could be too late. The November election is a large one with a number of statewide offices on the ballot, along with the presidential race.
“August 10 is the last date an issue can be placed on the ballot, and it starts our certification and standard planning of 90 days before an election,” Seaman told county commissioners on Tuesday. “We’re hoping we can get a decision before then if at all possible.”