HELENA — Montana's midterm elections saw a record number of absentee ballots overwhelm voting machines, found election officials in a dozen counties hand-counting votes and underscored the need to replace hundreds of aging voting machines for the disabled.
But money for equipment is scarce and state law restricts when absentee ballots can be counted, meaning the circumstances that resulted in votes still being counted days after the Nov. 6 election aren't likely to change anytime soon, according to Associated Press interviews with election officials across the state.
"Elections cost money and if people want accurate returns, accurate results, then you've got to pay for them," said Dayna Causby, Missoula County's election administrator. "If you want quicker returns, you've got to fund us."
Some help is coming from the U.S. government, which this year distributed $380 million in grants to states to improve their election systems and security. Montana's share was $3 million, and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton this week released the plans that he submitted in September to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission on how to spend it.
The bulk of the money, $2 million, will go toward a new voter registration system to replace the one that was installed in 2005 to comply with the Help America Vote Act requirement that all states have a registration system. Another $150,000 will go toward information technology security and $100,000 will pay for the salary of Stapleton's election supervisor, Stuart Fuller.
The rest, $750,000, will go to counties for voting equipment.
That amount isn't likely to go very far. The price of one voting machine for the disabled, which every polling place is required to have and several county officials identified as their most pressing need, starts at $3,500. There were 343 polling locations across the state for this year's election, meaning it would cost at least $1.2 million to replace the aging, bulky machines now being used throughout Montana.
"They're horrible," said Wheatland County election administrator Mary Miller. "I can heft those around, but for the older election judges, it's asking too much."
At the other end of the price spectrum are the speedy central-count tabulating machines that can cost up to $120,000 apiece. Missoula County used three of those machines in this election just to count absentee ballots, which topped 50,000 this year, Causby said.
"I think that with that kind of (absentee) return rate, we either need to buy one more if not two," she said.
One of the county's machines broke down on election night, slowing a count already made difficult by a state law that forbids counties from tabulating absentee ballots until Election Day. Equipment upgrades aside, election results would come a lot more quickly if state legislators changed the law to allow officials to begin the count earlier, elections officials said.
A record 370,000 people cast absentee ballots in Montana this year. The effect wasn't just felt in large counties like Missoula, but also among the 12 smaller counties in central and eastern Montana that still count their ballots by hand.
Election officials from three of those counties said the hand-counting system has worked fine for them, but one, Vera Pederson of Sweetgrass County, said she may consider upgrading to voting machines.
"We're getting higher and higher turnouts, so it's probably something that's on the horizon," she said.
The process of distributing the $750,000 to counties hasn't begun yet, due to miscommunication between federal and state election officials about the federal grant. Stapleton's elections director, Dana Corson, told state lawmakers this week that he was awaiting approval from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
EAC spokeswoman Brenda Soder told AP that the state has been free to spend the grant money since April.
Corson said the voting equipment upgrades and the new voter registration system are "co-equal priorities." The current voter registration system is at the end of its life and could become a security problem in the future, he said.
"We've been thoughtful and inclusive on how to spend the money," Corson said
Secretary of state officials did not respond to a request for a total cost estimate of a new voter registration system. Montana's current system cost about $10 million to install and upgrade between 2004 and 2014.
Among Montana's neighboring states, Idaho also is spending some of its federal grant money - $1 million of the $3.2 million it was awarded - to offset the cost of a new $4 million voter registration system. But other neighbors are spending the bulk of their money on voting equipment: Wyoming allocated $2.8 million of its $3 million toward equipment, North Dakota allocated all of its $3 million and South Dakota $2.5 million of its $3 million.
Casey Hayes, the election supervisor for Gallatin County who worked in the Secretary of State's elections division until this summer, said he believes the federal money can go further if it's used for voting equipment than for an overhaul of the registration system.
"Two million dollars isn't going to get you very far when creating a new database," Hayes said. "You can use that money in a meaningful way by improving the voting systems in the state, replacing the legacy systems."