Election Day: Crowded Polls, Early-Morning Precinct Problem in Kalispell

High-profile election looks to be driving large turnout in Flathead County

By Dillon Tabish
Long lines to vote at the Flathead County Fairgrounds on Nov. 8, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Updated: Nov. 8, 11 a.m.

Election Day is underway across the U.S. and voters in Kalispell lined up at the fairgrounds to cast their ballots, with some residents waiting more than an hour due to an early-morning problem.

The polls opened at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m. Polling places across the country were reporting long lines, reflecting heightened public interest in this year’s heated election.

At the largest polling location in the Flathead Valley, most voters swiftly cast their ballots while others waited with increasing displeasure as an early-morning issue stalled voting in one Kalispell precinct for more than an hour. Nearly 100 people in Precinct 5, which encompasses west-side neighborhoods, were still waiting to vote at the fairgrounds by 8:20 a.m., fueling frustration and forcing some people to leave for work.

“I’m very frustrated. We all have jobs to go to,” said Merry Kelly, a Kalispell public school staff member who had been waiting in line for more than an hour.

According to Flathead County election officials, the wrong registry cover was printed for Precinct 5, meaning the list of residents registered to vote in that area was incorrect. Once the error was discovered after polling opened at 7 a.m., the election department scrambled to print out the correct list and get it to the fairgrounds. The list arrived at 8:24 a.m., allowing election officials to begin helping the first voters file through the polling stations.

“This is the first time in 12 years that I’ve been doing this that this has ever occurred,” Mike Fraser, a poll manager with the Flathead County Election Department, said of the early-morning mistake.

The Associated Press reported that Emily Dean, spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office, said she had not heard of any other voting delays in the state.

Randi Johnson, a first-time voter, arrived early to vote with her husband, Mitch, but after 45 minutes of waiting, Mitch was forced to leave because he had to work.

“He’ll have to come back tonight after work and try to vote again,” Randi said.

Election officials wrote down half a dozen names of people who had to leave after waiting in line and will notify them later that they can vote, Fraser said.

For some, the frustration of waiting only punctuated an election that has already provoked outsized anxiety.

Chris Wheat, a Kalispell resident who waited in line starting around 7 a.m., said, “This is the most important election I’ve seen in my lifetime.” He convinced his friend, Joe Connolly, to vote for the first time. While enduring the long wait, Connolly lightened the mood by joking about his luck.

“This is the first time I’ve ever voted and this is what I come up against,” he said, laughing with Wheat. “Bad first impression.”

Despite the early-morning snafu, voting was mostly moving along swiftly as Election Day officially got underway.

The high-profile campaigns in this election, including the presidential and gubernatorial races, seem to be driving a large turnout in Flathead County. Fraser said the number of people who were already voting by 8 a.m. appeared to be higher than previous years.

Of the 27,798 absentee ballots mailed to residents in Flathead County, 21,799 had been returned by 3:44 a.m., according to the Montana Secretary of State’s Office. In Lake County, 6,701 ballots out of 7,438 had been returned by early Tuesday. In Lincoln County, 4,189 of 5,113 were returned. In Glacier County, 2,702 of 3,366 were returned. In Sanders County, 3,434 of 3,872 had been returned.

Statewide, 297,991 of the 349,365 ballots were returned.

There were 66,527 registered voters in Flathead County this year.

Campaign finance reports show the governor’s race between incumbent Democrat Steve Bullock and Republican challenger Greg Gianforte is on track to be the most expensive in state history. Pre-election day polls show the race is a virtual toss-up.

Absentee ballots that have not been mailed back should be dropped off in person, according to election officials. Click here for more information on the election and various races.

Follow FlatheadBeacon.com throughout the day for live results from the election. 

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