Montana mail-in ballot bill would cut counties’ costs

If approved by the state legislature, Montana Senate Bill (SB) 305 would save Custer County at least $15,000 by allowing mail-in-only voting for the May 25 special election.

SB 305, which would allow an election by mail for the special election to replace Rep. Ryan Zinke, has been undergoing hearings in Helena for several weeks, with the most recent hearing Thursday morning.

Linda Corbett, Clerk and Recorder and Election Administrator of Custer County, confirmed that a mail-in ballot could save the county at least $15,000.

Commissioners from a number of Montana counties as well election administrators testified in favor of the bill. There were more than 20 such testimonies at the first hearing on Feb. 20.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-39, who represents Rosebud County and a small portion of Custer County in the Montana House, was listed as a “requester” of the bill. As a former Clerk and Recorder and Election Administrator, Custer has long supported mail-in ballots and is a strong supporter of this bill.

In a column for the Miles City Star, Custer stated: “The counties were a half-million dollars underwater from the 2016 General Election due to ballot reprinting, and are not budgeted for a special election this fiscal year. Counties will be robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

The bill was sponsored by State Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R-Great Falls) in order to save money on the upcoming special election. In testimony before several hearing committees, Fitzpatrick stated that “costs to hold this upcoming special election are going to be enormous,” with estimates ranging between $2 and $3 million, funds that the counties have not budgeted for. Fitzpatrick stated the mail-in ballot option could save counties between between $500,000 and $750,000.

While saving money is always a legislative concern, opponents of the bill have stated they are concern the bill would reduce access for some voters. In particular, some Native Americans have testified against the bill due to access. There have also been concerns that a mail-in ballot would favor one party over the other. 

Fitzpatrick addressed both these concerns at the Feb. 20 hearing stating that “there would be no advantage for one party over another” by using a mail-in ballot and that the mail-in only election applied only to this special election. He also stated that the mail-in ballot would not restrict access to Native American voters.

Because the election occurs at an “odd time of year” and was not budgeted for by counties, Fitzpatrick stated that his bill is the “fiscally conservative thing to do.”

Passions flared over the bill in the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

The committee’s chair, Republican Rep. Alan Doane of Bloomfield, halted proceedings and cleared the hearing room Thursday after one woman defied his decision to limit time for testimony from the overflow crowd.

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton opposes the measure and suggests that an all-mail ballot could affect the integrity of the balloting.

Counties say they face hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs because of the election and might not have adequate polling places.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story. Contact Amorette Allison at mcreporter@midrivers.com.)