At a press call Thursday morning, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that Montana counties would have the option of conducting the general election exclusively through mail ballots.
County election officials formally asked Bullock on July 24 to allow them to choose whether to conduct an all-mail ballot for the general election and asked that he make that decision by Aug. 10, which is 85 days before the election.
Election officials expressed concern that COVID-19 has made some polling locations unavailable. They also said it could be tough to find election judges willing to staff polling locations.
Bullock, who declared a state of emergency in late March to battle the coronavirus pandemic, has the power to supersede state election law during an emergency and allow counties to choose all-mail ballots for the statewide election.
He made that call for the primary election. Montana saw a record turnout on June 2, surpassing the old primary-election high by 90,000 voters.
The Montana Republican Party told MTN last week that going to all-mail voting in November would “limit options for Montanans who prefer to vote in-person on election day,” and that they should have the option to go to the polls.
After the press conference Bullock's office issued this press release:
MONTANA – Governor Steve Bullock today issued a directive to ensure all eligible Montanans can safely vote in the 2020 November general election by allowing counties to expand voting by mail and early voting. Whether or not they provide mail ballots, all counties will be required to offer in person voting opportunities and take precautions to ensure Montanans have the option to register or vote safely.
“I am in agreement with our bipartisan election administrators – who are the ones on the ground with the first-hand knowledge of how to successfully conduct an election – that we must protect Montanans’ right to vote, while protecting the public’s health,” Governor Bullock said. “Locally elected officials best understand the voting needs of their communities, and taking this action now ensures they will have the time to make the right decisions for their localities. With this approach we can protect that fundamental right to vote, while easing crowding and pressure on voting on Election Day.”
The directive permits counties, at their discretion, to expand access to voting by mail and early voting. Counties that opt to vote by mail will still require counties to allow in person voting. All counties must ensure appropriate social distancing to provide safe voting and voter registration for all Montanans.
For the primary election, county election administrators adeptly managed the change in procedures and held a safe election marked by an increase in voter turnout compared to previous primary elections. In July, the bipartisan Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders and Election Administrators as well as the Montana Association of Counties requested that Governor Bullock again give counties the option to conduct a mail ballot election in November. Their request stressed the ethical concerns with following standard election procedures, which would produce serious risks for voters and poll workers alike—effectively forcing Montanans to choose between their safety and the right to vote. The election administrators also stressed the chaos that could follow if polling locations are closed at the last minute or if counties are forced to consolidate polling locations in response to outbreaks.
The option to provide mail ballots while expanding early voting will protect Montanans’ right to vote, while protecting the public’s health. The CDC has recognized that in person voting on election day increases the risk of transmitting COVID-19, and has urged states to use voting methods that reduce crowd size. Many Montana election workers are over the age of 60 and are often in close proximity to each other, large crowds, and interact with paper, pens, and other items that could be infected and exchanged frequently.
Governor Bullock’s Directive contains three central components:
- Counties may choose to send mail ballots and expand early voting for the June 2, 2020 primary election.
- Counties are encouraged to publicize available options and to work with nonprofit organizations to ensure that all Montanans will have access to a ballot, whether in person, early, or by mail.
- All counties must establish, implement, and enforce social distancing policies at polling locations, designated drop-off locations, or other public-facing portions of facilities involved in voting.
The Directive largely mirrors the June 2020 primary Directive, but also reflects feedback from the bipartisan group of county election administrators, who studied the June 2020 primary. The Directive encourages election administrators to publicize mail and early voting options, to make options available to voters early, and to work with local nonprofit organizations to facilitate voting on reservations in particular. Based on county election administrators’ feedback, the directive also requests that the Secretary of State’s Office include designated place of deposit locations on voters’ “My Voter Page” profiles in addition to available polling places and recommends that Automark or Expressvote technology be made available at polling locations from Oct. 2 through election day.
Additionally, the Directive provides expanded timelines for voter registration, ballot distribution, and early voting opportunities. The Directive extends the close of regular voter registration until 10 days before the election to minimize the need for in-person registration or lines. County election administrators will be able to make ballots available from Oct. 2 until the end of the election. Mail-in ballots will be sent on Oct. 9 and no postage will be required to return ballots by mail.Finally, the Directive requires that counties, regardless of their voting procedures, implement social distancing guidelines to make voter registration and voting safer for all Montanans and reduce spreading COVID-19 within communities. As CDC guidelines provide, counties must ensure a minimum of six feet of distancing between individuals at polling locations, designated drop-off locations, or public-facing portions of facilities involved in voting.