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High Turnout, Early Voting Could Make for Unpredictable Election Day

By Beacon Staff

In the face of a hotly contested presidential race, Flathead County election officials are anticipating and preparing for record turnout at the polls. At a meeting of the election task board last week, Flathead County Election Administrator, and Clerk and Recorder Paula Robinson told the gathering of election volunteers, candidates and media the county has 56,890 registered voters as of Sept. 23.

With late registration extending all the way to Election Day, Nov. 4, that number could climb higher in coming weeks as the campaigns enter the home stretch in earnest and efforts to get out the vote intensify.

Compounding the unpredictability, a high number of absentee ballots are being mailed out Oct. 6. According to Flathead Election Supervisor Monica Eisenzimer, absentee ballots are increasingly being requested by, not just voters in the military or those living abroad, but residents who don’t want the hassle of traveling to a physical polling place.

“With the price of gas going up and everything, you see more and more people voting absentee,” Eisenzimer said.

Nationally, about one-third of the electorate is expected to vote early or absentee this year. That’s tens of millions of Americans who will have already cast their vote by the time the last presidential debate occurs, or the nation’s volatile economic climate takes another twist.

Flathead County has approximately 7,000 absentee ballots prepared for mailing, and Eisenzimer anticipates her department eventually mailing out between 12,000 and 15,000 total absentee ballots – a hefty percentage of the roughly 50,000 active voters officials think could cast their ballot in this election. Out of that number, only about 300 absentee ballots are heading to military voters and Flathead County residents abroad.

The county is preparing for every contingency, recruiting some 30 volunteers tasked with opening absentee ballot envelopes the day before Election Day and preparing those ballots to be counted. The county hopes to release the absentee ballot count to the media and on its Web site at 8:30 p.m. the night of the election, just a half hour after polls close.

The election department has also created a ballot resolution board to determine voter intent on improperly marked ballots as a way to make sure every vote counts. The resolution board is composed of two Republicans, two Democrats, two representatives of any other party and a number of alternates.

The county is also beefing up security surrounding vote counting. Robinson said eight surveillance cameras, purchased at a cost of $25,000, will be positioned throughout the old courthouse building and other county buildings where votes will be counted on election night after the ballots are driven in from the 30 polling places in Flathead County.

At the task board meeting, election officials indicated that even if everything works flawlessly on Election Day, the anticipated high voter turnout is certain to make it a late night, and they will continue to urge anyone who hasn’t yet registered to do so before Nov. 4.

“Late registration should be used by the people who need it, not by people who procrastinate,” Eisenzimer said.

In 2006, same day registration increased voter turnout in Montana, but also led to lines of last-minute voters stretching outside county buildings all over the state – and delayed determining the winner of the tight U.S. Senate election.

Jan Hardesty, records manager for Flathead County, said more people are likely registered ahead of time this year, but she also doesn’t rule out a similar scenario to Election Day 2006.

“We definitely are prepared for that and hoping that it doesn’t happen again,” Hardesty said.