As local communities look toward the first election since Montana voted to limit who can deliver absentee ballots cast by others, the state's elections watchdog is starting to process forms for the new collection system.
Under the new law, caregivers, family members, those in the same household or an acquaintance can drop off ballots if they fill out a ballot collection registry form. The form includes a person's name and contact information, along with the voter's name, mailing address and relationship to the collector.
The forms are available online and will be at locations where people pick up or drop off ballots.
The number of people who vote absentee in Montana has grown rapidly over the last two decades. In the most recent 2018 election, 73 percent of the ballots casts were absentee. In 2000, absentee votes made up 15 percent of total votes.
The commissioner's office expects hundreds or thousands of registries for each election. It has already received forms for special district elections to be held this year.
People who pick up or drop off ballots without registering can be assessed a $500 fine per ballot. A person can drop off six ballots per each election. Dropping off more subjects them to a $500 fine.
The Commissioner of Political Practices and county attorneys will enforce and investigate any violations of the new law. The commissioner's office has requested funding for a part-time employee to manage and track registration, though the cost of that is unknown.
Complaints about improper collection of ballots would be investigated as they are made to the commissioner.
Allegations of illegal ballot collections in North Carolina led to a new U.S. House election. In the 2018 election there, a GOP political operative is suspected of collecting absentee ballots, which is illegal in that state, and in some cases filled out parts of ballots.
Montana voters approved the state's "Ballot Interference Prevention Act'' with 63 percent of the vote in 2018.
The law is similar to a bill carried by former Rep. Jeff Essmann, a Billings Republican, in 2017. Essmann said he brought the bill in response to events in Livingston and Missoula during the 2016 election where, in at least one case, a voter called the police after a stranger offered to take their ballot and deliver it to the county elections office. There was no evidence ballots collected in the election didn't make it to local elections offices or that they were tampered with.
Those who opposed the bill in 2017 said limitations on who collects ballots would create unnecessary barriers to voting.