BILLINGS — There’s been nothing special about turnout for Montana’s U.S. House special election, other than voting heading into the last week has been low, election officials say.
“We’ve had a few people,” said Bret Rutherford, Yellowstone County Elections officer. “If this was October, we would have people coming into the office all day long, eight to five o’clock, someone would be in here.”
Roughly 31 percent of Montana’s registered voters had turned ballots by May 18, just seven days remaining before the May 25 finish, which is the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend. Elections officials expect many last-day voters won't vote as they head into the long weekend with camping on the brain.
Democrat Rob Quist, Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Mark Wicks are vying to replace Ryan Zinke as Montana’s only House member. Zinke resigned the post May 2 to become President Donald Trump’s Interior secretary.
In Flathead County, home of Glacier National Park and the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi River, the Thursday before Memorial Day is about staking out your campground spot, said Monica Eisenzimer of the Flathead County Elections office.
Flathead County has the second highest number of Republican voters in Montana. It’s also a community that likes to vote on Election Day. In Flathead County, there are a lot of older voters who like to vote in person, Eisenzimer said.
With a week left to vote, 25 percent of Flathead County voters had returned absentee ballots, according to Montana Secretary of State election data.
It isn’t often that the only statewide race on a ballot is for U.S. House, but when it happens, turnout tends to be lower. The last time it happened was in 2010 when turnout was 56.36 percent, according to state election records. The occurrence before that was 1998 when 53 percent of Montana’s registered voters turned out.
To hit 56 percent this year, another 174,061 ballots would have to be turned in before May 25. There were 217,329 ballots returned through May 18.
There are just fewer than 699,000 registered voters in Montana.
Turnout in November — a presidential election — was 74 percent.
Two key counties for the Democratic vote are Missoula and Gallatin, home to the state’s flagship universities. In those communities, 4,800 absentee ballots mailed out to voters bounced back to elections offices undeliverable.
University students move around, said Charlotte Mills, Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder, who oversees elections from her Bozeman office. Ballots don’t automatically forward to new addresses. Mills said her staff alphabetized the return-to-sender ballots then sent out notices to voters. The U.S. Postal Service will forward the notices. Last Thursday, the number of ballots unclaimed by voters who moved numbered 2,600.
Missoula County Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors said a considerable number of address changes in her community have ballots bouncing back. There have been 2000 ballots marked return to sender in Missoula County. Like Mills, Connors is attempting to chase down voters whose addresses have changed.
Mills said the voting is steady, however. Gallatin County plans to put a ballot box and an election official at the curb outside the courthouse on May 25 so voters can drive up and drop off absentee ballots without getting out of their cars — anything to make voting easier.
“It’s kind of steady now, but it’s not overwhelming,” Mills said of ballot returns. “We have times when there’s no one in the office, but we have times when everyone is busy.”
Some of that busy work is dealing with voters angered by partisan get-out-the-vote efforts. National Democratic and Republican groups have been mailing out official-looking notices informing voters that ballots haven’t been received when in many cases the people targeted have voted.
Worried their ballot won’t count, voters contact Mills wanting to know what’s going on. Elections officials across the state are having the same problem. National parties are using stale ballot data to sound the alarm.
Connors expects Missoula County residents to turn out for this election. There’s been a lot of attention to the U.S. House race. The get-out-the-vote drives have been intense. One elderly voter living in an assisted living center complained of partisans knocking on her door late at night, Connors said.
Missoula County also sets up a drive-thru voting at the fairgrounds on Election Day. There’s also a 24-hour drop off slot.
Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford recommended voters in rural counties who have not yet returned their ballots to walk them in to a polling place or elections office. For voters in Yellowstone County, he recommended they mail ballots by Tuesday.
Mail delivery can take several days in some parts of the state, so by dropping a ballot in a mailbox close to Election Day voters are taking a risk their ballot won't make it in time.