In Helena at the Legislature, a bill allowing earlier processing of absentee ballots in Montana elections passed the State Senate last week and is being considered by the House. The bill was proposed to shorten the wait for results from election day - and affects only Montana’s dozen largest counties. Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, who, with other county clerks, supports the bill, said the 2018 election was a prime example of the problem.

“This last general election, it was a two-page ballot. Ravalli County got done counting at 5 a.m. and we were the first of the large counties. And from there it went well into Wednesday and even Thursday before the other large counties had their results.”

A major reason for the lengthy wait for results is the increasing number of absentee ballots that are mailed back to election offices. The absentee vote is now surpassing those who actually go to the polls on election day.

Plettenberg said: “I think the state average is over 60 percent now. Some counties like Yellowstone are at 80 percent.”

Senate Bill 162, as it currently reads, would allow opening and verifying those absentee ballots and then counting those ballots before election day.
“Currently we can get our absentee ballots opened the Monday before the election and we can begin counting at 7 a.m. on election day,” Plettenberg said. “This bill would actually let us to start opening the ballots on the Thursday or Friday before the election and then start counting them on Monday.”

What about security questions? Those opened ballots would be securely locked until counted, and the machine-counted results on Monday would only be accessed by election administrators. The penalty for any early release of those results is severe - up to a half-million dollars in fines and jail time.

Another problem is the increasing number of voters registering to vote on election day, which is allowed by State law. In 2018, some voter “late registration” lines were not cleared until hours after poll closure time, and only then could those newly registered voters cast their ballots, which again delayed the results. This bill does not address that issue.