With only days left to drop off ballots ahead of the 8 p.m. Tuesday deadline, the Lewis and Clark County Elections Department has already received a little more than 70% of registered voters' ballots and is prepared for an Election Day unlike any other.
Of Lewis and Clark County's 50,159 registered voters, 36,350 had cast their ballots as of Friday afternoon. Of those more than 36,000 ballots, 37 have been rejected and 819 are yet to be processed, according to an email from Lewis and Clark County Elections Supervisor Audrey McCue.
The county elections department set up mail ballot drop off locations in Helena, East Helena, Augusta, Lincoln and Wolf Creek.
Helena residents Rebecca Johnson and Clare Kearns are the two county election officials who have manned the local drop-off site for nearly three weeks, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
The duo has withstood freezing temperatures, snowstorms and high winds to help neighbors cast their ballots.
"I wanted to help ensure we have an election where every vote counts," said Johnson, who volunteered as an election official for the first time this year. "It really feels like you're helping empower people. I think it also gives people a sense of community."
Kearns said she has been impressed with the number of young and first-time voters who have already turned out.
"It's been happening a lot this election and it's very encouraging," she said. "People are paying close attention and forming their own opinions."
They have been handing out treats to voters' pets and "future voter" stickers to voters' kids. In return, Johnson said, voters have brought cookies and warm soup.
"They're very sweet," Johnson said of her fellow community members.
Johnson said early voters were a bit skeptical, especially in light of a vocal minority calling the mail-in ballots a scam.
"This really starts to dispel the distrust," Johnson said of her and Kearns' presence.
While Helena's drive-thru ballot drop-off site, located at the northeast corner of Lawrence Street and Park Avenue, will be closed during the weekend, those who have yet to drop off their ballots can do so Monday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. or on Election Day between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.
On Election Day, voted ballots can also be returned from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Augusta Youth/Senior Center, Lincoln Community Hall, Wolf Creek School and East Helena City Hall.
Voters who have yet to vote are encouraged to drop off ballots either at one of these sites or at the county elections department inside the City-County Building, 316 N. Park Ave., as ballots received by mail after the deadline will not be counted regardless of when they are postmarked.
Lewis and Clark Public Health officials are encouraging voters to not wait until Tuesday evening to vote in hopes of avoiding a large crowd at the City-County Building, the lone location for in-person voting in the county.
"We’d like to stress that community members don’t have to wait until Election Day to vote – they can vote in person before Tuesday at the Elections Office," Lewis and Clark Public Health spokesman Damian Boudreau said in an email. "If they do vote on Election Day, they should expect long lines, so people should watch physical distancing and also wear masks. We encourage voters to do the drive through drop-off option. Finally, we would like people to follow the election staff instructions (be kind, they are volunteers)."
Election judges will begin opening returned mail ballots at 8 a.m. on Monday. Those votes will be tabulated, but the first batch of results will not be released until 8 p.m. Tuesday.
McCue said she expects results from the "vast majority of votes" will be released during that 8 p.m. upload to the secretary of state's website. She also said the department is planning to release one update between 11 p.m. and midnight election night and another at some point early Wednesday.
The county elections department has implemented some Election Day changes it hopes will alleviate headaches at the poll.
Since Montana began allowing same-day voter registration, McCue said the number of Election Day registrants has increased in each presidential election. In 2016, Lewis and Clark County had 690 voters register on Election Day, and McCue said that line "was over an hour long."
"Since then, we have been looking for ways to reduce this wait time," McCue said in the email. "We came up with a good plan that doubles the amount of form processing tables and implements a new check-in system."
Because of the extended deadline for normal registration this year and the changes implemented locally, McCue expects the number of late registrants will be down from previous elections.
One group of voters officials are concerned about, however, are those who were mailed a ballot in early October but want to vote in-person.
McCue encouraged those voters to either use the drive-thru drop-off sites or at least bring the ballots mailed to them to the elections department.
"We are finding that a lot of people don’t realize that the ballots issued by mail or in person are exactly the same," McCue said. "They’ll save themselves and everyone else time by using the ballot that was already issued to them."
She said it is difficult to predict wait times on Election Day "with so many unknown factors," but that voters should "be prepared for at least on hour long wait on Election Day."