Ballot drop

Lewis and Clark County has funds budgeted for unexpected events, such as the May 25 election that will be held to fill the state's lone U.S. House seat vacated by Republican Ryan Zinke. 

Zinke was confirmed and sworn-in as secretary of the Interior on March 1, setting in motion a requirement that a special election be held between 85 and 100 days from that date to fill the seat.

Montana's Democratic, Republican and Libertarian parties are all slated to select their candidate for the vacancy, which was not anticipated when the county assembled its budget for the fiscal year that began July 1 and will end June 30, 2018.

The county budgets $200,000 annually for contingencies, said Nancy Everson, the county’s finance director and acting chief administrative officer.

“We put $200,000 in the general fund budget just in case something like this comes up,” she said.

The county’s overall budget this fiscal year is about $81 million and the general fund portion of it is about $12 million, she said.

The cost of an election that uses polling places is about $150,000, said Audrey McCue, the county’s elections supervisor.

The 2014 general election cost the county $142,765, according to McCue’s data.

However, the November 2016 general election that involved the use of polling places cost $203,676, she said, explaining the additional cost was due to several reasons that included the need to have a two-page ballot instead of just one. 

Further adding to printing cost was reprinting one page of the ballot because Libertarian Michael Fellows, a congressional candidate, died in a car crash prior to the election.

Because of the widespread interest in the election, additional staff was hired by the county’s election office, and this too added to the higher cost, McCue said.

While the state Legislature is considering a bill to allow the election to be held by mail, which offers a cost savings compared to using polling places for voting, county officials are proceeding as though they will be required to hold the election through polling places, said Paulette DeHart, the county treasurer/clerk and recorder.

Should the Legislature not agree to allow counties to conduct the election by mail, voters will have to be notified if their traditional polling place isn’t available, DeHart said.

Jim Darcy Elementary School isn’t available for the special election, she said, adding that the notification on new polling places would also contain paperwork for voters to request absentee ballots.

The county is moving ahead to hire election judges to work the polls. However, some who have worked past elections have already indicated they won’t be able to help with the special election.

If the Legislature agrees to allow counties to send all ballots to voters by mail, McCue projected the cost for the election would be $80,000 or less.

The 2015 school district and special district election that was conducted through the mail cost nearly $76,215. The municipal election that year for the city of Helena, which included a countywide ballot issue for building and operating a new detention facility, used the mail and cost almost $75,821.

With an authorization to use the mail instead of polling places, McCue projects the county will spend some $65,000 less on the election.

If the special election is conducted by mail, elections office staff say they would be able to accommodate the change as 22,270 absentee ballots are going to be mailed anyway.

If ballots were sent to all active registered voters, a total of 40,441 ballots would be sent as of Friday, McCue said, noting that no one has yet been removed from the list of active voters because of not having voted in the November election.

Voters cannot be removed from the list of those who are active within 90 days of a federal election, she explained.

The date of the election will be the Thursday before the Memorial Day weekend, McCue said, and she suggested the timing could affect voter participation.

“I don’t think people are going to go to the polls” because of plans for the holiday weekend, she said.

While the county will be preparing for the upcoming special election, routine business for the elections office will call for handling the Helena Public Schools bond issue election, voting for rural fire districts and districts that provide water and wastewater service.

If all of these elections were held, there would be nine for fire districts and four for water and wastewater districts, DeHart said, although McCue doesn’t look for this to happen.

Some voters will also be seeing ballots to decide issues in East Helena, said DeHart and McCue.

To help voters keep track of all of the ballots they may be receiving -- absentee special election ballots will be mailed about the same time as those for the Helena Public Schools bond election -- the envelopes used by the county, school district and East Helena will be color coded, McCue said.

In addition to ballots, voters will also be responsible for paying property taxes in May, DeHart said, and she explained that this too will add to the work that her office handles.

“This is going to be a busy couple of months,” she added.

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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