State already receives back record number of absentee ballots

The election billed by many as one of the most important in Montana history waits just one day away. Votes have already been cast by hundreds of thousands of Montanans. The state has already received back a record number of absentee ballots.

As of Monday morning, nearly 80 percent of absentees sent to voters have been returned.

“We have issued and already received back a record number of absentee ballots,” said Secretary of State Communications Director Terri McCoy.

She says nearly 240 thousand ballots have been turned back in. That’s already beat the old record set back in the 2008 election of 212 thousand ballots.

Yet, 80 percent of absentee ballots received leaves 20 percent of the ballots still out there. McCoy reminds voters at this point those ballots have to be submitted in person.

“Instead of by mail because all ballots have to be received by the county election office by 8 PM on November 6th and postmarks are not accepted,” she said.

A line of voters stretches out the door of the Lewis and Clark County Elections office.

“It’s been like this since 8 in the morning,” said Election Administrator Marilyn Bracken.

The people in the line are those yet to register to vote.That can be done all the way until the close of polls on voting day at 8 PM.

And if people are in line when the doors close, they do still get to vote. Bracken says during the 2008 election, two lines of people were still out the door of her office.

“We didn’t get done voting those people until 10,” Bracken said.

It’s unclear at this point how long it will take to count the votes, and some of the races look to be very close.

“After all those results are in, we will tag potential recount races as well,” McCoy said.

And with recounts, we may not know the final results  until after election day.

Deadline passes for petition signature efforts; no results for a month

Time is up for turning in petition signatures for the November Ballot. Advocates for various ballot initiatives have been been asking voters to sign these petitions for months now. Two initiatives look very likely to make the ballot, with others uncertain.

But the Secretary of State’s office says a lot of work has to be done before we know what makes the ballot.

Here’s what we do know. IR-124 will appear on the November Ballot. That’s the initiative that puts the Medical Marijuana reform bill passed by the last legislature before voters. We’ve actually known that for a while now. Signature gatherers got their totals in very early.

Then there’s Initiative 166. This is the non-binding requirement that elected Montana officials put into place policies saying corporations are not people. Sponsors released a statement this week saying they have turned in enough signatures too.

“But I would just like to remind people that there is still a certification and tabulation process that could change the number of those signatures that were turned in,” said Communications Director for the Montana Secretary of State’s Office Terri McCoy. The turning-in of signatures is far from the last word on initiatives.

“Every single signature is checked and verified,” she said, “and not only verified that you are a voter in the state but that your signature matches what you have on record with your voter registration.”

County election officials do this across the state. For initiatives altering state policy, they need to count almost 25-thousand signatures. For those altering the state Constitution, it’s almost 50 thousand.

Lewis and Clark County Elections Supervisor Marilyn Bracken says they won’t be able to even start counting the signatures until they get through the big stack of voter registration cards that go along with many of those signatures. She says that’s unusual—so many people registering to vote in order to sign petitions.

“That didn’t used to happen that way, we didn’t used to get a big stack of registrations that kind of slows us down because we can’t do the petitions until the registrations are in. Otherwise there’d be a lot of people and it wouldn’t qualify,” Bracken said.

Officials are counting for four other initiatives right now—including one defining personhood as beginning at conception. But the Secretary of State’s office won’t be releasing the final signature counts until July 20th.


Primary Day slow at the polls, absentee ballots up

Andrew Funk (left) waits to receive his ballot at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse

Andrew Funk (left) waits to receive his ballot at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse

The votes are still coming in. The polls are still open for Montana’s Primary Election. Hotly-contested races for Governor, US House and Attorney General hang in the balance.

And yet, at polling places, Election Day excitement seems pretty mild.

College student Andrew Funk just moved from Missoula back to Helena for the Summer. He had a spare minute while the people in front of him registered to vote.

“I grew up here and I have personal connections to the people in this community running, so I wanted to cast my vote for the people that I really know,” he said.

In a room right next to Funk, those registered could grab their ballots and turn them in. There was a fairly constant stream of voters, but it was a pretty tepid one.

Lewis and Clark County Election Supervisor Marilyn Bracken says it’s the slowest Primary Day she has seen in a long time. Her office was a lot busier the last two primaries, 2008 and 2010.

“In 2008 they were lined up two lines out to the motor vehicle department,” she said.

That’s a pretty long line, considering by that time Andrew Funk had already finished registration and was grabbing his ballot.

“We don’t have an urgency of races,” said Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, “We don’t have a presidential race hanging in the balance.”

2008 was a unique situation. The Democratic Presidential Primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was still up in the air. Montana’s results really mattered nationally. There’s nothing like that now. McCulloch expects the primary turnout percentage to be somewhere in the 30s, maybe low 40s. She says overall, that’s about average.

There is one bright spot. The state sent out a record number of absentee ballots for a primary, almost 190 thousand. Latest figures show 67 percent have been turned back in. A decade ago the absentee return rate was more like 15 percent.

“So it really has changed the mindset and people can sit at home around the kitchen table and fill out their ballot and they can go online or check the literature and so they can do it at their leisure,” McCulloch said.

A dozen counties across the state will be hand-counting their ballots. Election officials say this does not mean they will be late, however the votes are tallied.

“It’s good that counties could prepare their ballots yesterday and quite a few did,” McCulloch said. “So they can kind of lay them flat and get them ready to go through the machines and count them….I think we’re gonna see some results by 10 O’Clock.”

And for those of you who haven’t voted yet—the 60 to 70 percent of you out there. If you’re reading this right now, you still have a chance. YOU can still vote.

“If they hear it at 7:55 tonight, they can still take part,” McCulloch said. “They can still register to vote up until 8 O’Clock they can return their absentee ballots up until 8 O’Clock and they can vote at the polls until 8 O’Clock.”

Until 8 PM, you still totally have time. You can still do it.

And don’t forget, Montana Public Radio will be bringing you live coverage of results and analysis on the hour starting as soon as the polls close at 8 o’clock.