Voting by Mail: Could it Work in Montana?

By Beacon Staff

Is the voting booth going the way of the dodo? Potentially.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, Montana’s top election official, plans to introduce a bill in the 2011 Legislature that would institute all-mail ballot elections. The system would be loosely modeled after Oregon’s, the only state currently employing an all-mail ballot system. (Every county in Washington except one also uses an all-mail system.)

“It increases their turnout for voters,” McCulloch, a Democrat, said. “And it increases the accessibility for voters.”

The number of Montanans who choose to vote absentee, mailing in their ballot, has been rapidly increasing, from 15 percent of voters in 2000, to 54 percent of voters in the primary election of June 2010.

“It’s a trend we certainly hear,” McCulloch said. “People are already using that mechanism.”

In April she convened a working group to consider improvements to Montana elections composed of clerks and recorders, tribal officials, Montana Conservation Voters, rural voters and other groups. They tackled the toughest issues involved in all-mail-ballot elections head-on: whether there would be drop-boxes; who pays for postage; and how the accuracy of voter files could be maintained, among others.

“They all talked about the fact that they had more common ground and agreed upon more things than they ever thought they would,” McCulloch said.

In August she traveled to Oregon and met with different groups involved in all-mail-ballot elections, from U.S. Postal Service workers to the disabled, Republicans and Democrats.

“We wanted to make sure we visited people in Oregon that were indicative of the concerns we had in Montana,” McCulloch said. “What we found out was that people loved voting by mail.”

One thing she learned was that prevalent, secured drop-boxes are necessary for the system to work, since many low-income voters and young people don’t use stamps.

Two bills that would have introduced all-mail-ballots, or give counties that option, failed in 2009, but McCulloch said that legislation did not include provisions for drop-boxes, and would have required many changes in state statute not addressed in the bills. This time around, she believes she has a better-researched, more practical bill on the way.

“Our intention all along was not to rush it, but to do it right,” McCulloch said. “We’ll take the bill to the Legislature and see if they’re interested in doing this.”



2000 (general) 15% Absentee

2008 (general) 42% Absentee

2010 (primary) 54% Absentee


2000 (absentee stats unavailable)

2008 (general) 26%

2010 (primary) 46%


Training election judges is increasingly time-consuming and expensive. According to Flathead County Clerk and Recorder Paula Robinson, all-mail ballots would require hiring fewer judges and security guards, cut costs on maintaining voting machines, eliminate set-up and take-down of 30 polling places and other expenses. Voters would no longer have to deal with bad weather, long lines, traveling to a polling place and other potential obstacles. Robinson estimates all-mail ballots could save the county $55,000 per election.


McCulloch will reconvene her working group following the elections to work on specific bill language, then seek a legislator willing to sponsor it.

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