Absentee Ballots Gave Flathead Dems, 911 Center Late Boost

By Beacon Staff

It was a long night last night at the Flathead County Election Department, and when the last voter in line to register and vote filled out his paperwork and headed to the ballot box, everyone there – candidates, reporters, election workers, voters – cheered and broke into applause. I showed up for work late today after filing stories and updating election results with Kellyn until almost 3 am last night. And while there are still a number of open state legislative seats around the state, the close races in the Flathead appear resolved.

But while Republicans won decisive victories all over the Flathead, as the results came in last night we noticed the early and absentee ballots – that weren’t counted until almost midnight – tended to favor Democrats.

Here’s what I base that on: At 11:17 p.m. Tuesday night, election officials released a vote count that included all 42 precincts, but did not include the 19,818 absentee ballots, which workers were still then counting. At that point, Democratic House District 8 candidate Cheryl Steenson trailed incumbent Republican Rep. Craig Witte, 1,158 to 896. Incumbent Democratic Rep. Mike Jopek had a razor-thin 19-vote lead over Republican John Fuller in the race for Whitefish’s House District 4, 1,564 to 1,545. And the 911 center bond was on its way to rejection, by a vote of 12,116 to 11,256. (Obviously the 911 center bond isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that more conservative-leaning voters might be less likely to opt to pay a bigger tax bill next year to fund the 911 center.)

But after the election results released at 2:41 a.m. Wednesday morning, which include the absentee ballots, things began looking up for the Dems and 911 center. Steenson took a 32-vote lead over Witte, 2,006 to 1,984, as of this writing. Jopek’s lead jumped up to 492 votes over Fuller. And the 911 center gained narrow approval, 20,237 to 20,031.

Even in races where the outcomes didn’t change, the absentee ballots drastically altered the races. Absentee ballots didn’t benefit Dems across the board. Democratic Senate District 3 candidate Mark Holston’s vote count increased by more than 2,000, from 2,436 to 4,547. Unfortunately for Holston, his opponent, victorious Republican Bruce Tutvedt enjoyed an even bigger boost, from 4,590 votes pre-absentee, to 7,327 votes once absentees were added. In the hotly contested race for Senate District 2, absentee ballots increased Republican Ryan Zinke’s margin of victory slightly, from an 868-vote margin pre-absentee, to a 910 vote after the addition of absentee ballots.

Though these trends could change in coming years, even in a mostly conservative area like the Flathead, ease of voting facilitated by early voting and absentee voting appears to favor Democrats. Draw from that whatever conclusions you will.

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