Yellowstone County finished counting ballots for the Nov. 6 General Election about 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 7. The counting started early on Election Day and the county's tabulator machines worked properly, but the sheer volume — 140,000 ballot sheets — resulted in an all-day, all-night and most-of-the-second-day work shift with no sleep for election officials doing this very important job.
Meanwhile in Gallatin and Missoula counties, tabulator machines broke down, further delaying their election results.
Election results in Montana's larger population counties could have been available earlier — if the ballot prep and counting started earlier. Present Montana law says counting cannot commence until Election Day and that absentee ballots cannot be opened, unfolded and stacked for counting until the day before Election Day. Last November, Yellowstone County election judges were still slicing envelopes open and unfolding ballots nearly till dawn on Nov. 7.
Montana's election administrators have proposed a practical remedy for the high-volume ballot counting using tabulator machines:
Allow counties to start preparing absentee ballots for counting on the Thursday before the election, which would provide up to three work days (Thursday, Friday and Monday) before Election Day for opening, unfolding and stacking ballots in trays for tabulating .
Permit counties to start tabulating ballots the day before Election Day.
Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, is sponsoring this common-sense bill that would allow populous Montana counties to do what their counterparts already do in many other states. In Oregon, Arizona and Minnesota, for example, tabulation starts seven days before the election. Kansas, Illinois, Missouri and Washington scan absentee ballots as soon they are received.
With most Yellowstone County voters choosing to vote early (usually on mailed ballots), we must update our state laws. Montana law must provide our hard-working election officials with the time they need to finish their job and expedite accurate election results. Election administrators have to be extremely well organized because their workload is dictated by election deadlines and the biggest jobs require working nonstop on Election Day and thereafter till all ballots are counted.
At a hearing last week in the Senate State Administration Committee, county clerks and election officials from Montana's larger population counties testified in favor of Webb's bill. The bill wouldn't require smaller population counties to make any changes.
Senators who had questions about preserving secrecy of ballots and vote counts learned that Montana law already requires elections officials to swear, under penalty of law, not to divulge vote counts before all voting. Although members of the public are allowed to observe vote counting and ballot prep now, information on ballot counts is available only to the election administrator and his designee. Those same strong protections would be extended for the longer prep and counting periods. As Bret Rutherford, Yellowstone County elections administrator, explained: Public observers can see a running total of the number of ballot sheets put through the tabulator machines, but no results.
We appreciate the senate committee's vote of approval Friday, which sends Webb's bill to the full Senate. We call on all Yellowstone County lawmakers to join Webb and Sen. Doug Kary, who voted in favor in committee, in supporting this well written, practical proposal for improving the election process in Montana's biggest population centers. Senate Bill 162 would yield complete, accurate election results sooner after voting closes in our county.