Montana Democrats Strategize to Keep Mail Balloting Alive

Bill gives counties the choice to use mail-in ballots in upcoming special election

By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN, Associated Press

HELENA — Montana Democrats vowed Wednesday to force a legislative battle over mail-only ballots onto the House floor, perhaps as soon as this week, so counties aren’t kept hanging over how to conduct the May 25 special election to fill the state’s only congressional seat.

A majority of the state’s 56 counties are pushing lawmakers to consent to mail-only voting, arguing that it could lead to combined savings of $750,000 — as well as save them the logistical challenges of securing polling places and hiring thousands of poll workers to oversee the balloting.

With time running out, Democrats said they would make a last-ditch effort to pass the bill by using a legislative tactic called “blasting.” That would send the proposal to the House floor for a vote but would be politically risky because of the higher number of total votes — and Republican votes — the measure would then need for passage.

The legislation is a priority among Democrats who hope that vote-by-mail ballots will increase participation in the special election to fill the seat vacated by Ryan Zinke, who resigned his seat to lead the Interior Department.

Republican Greg Gianforte, a Bozeman businessman, is hoping to keep the open congressional seat in GOP hands. His major opponent is Democrat Rob Quist, a well-known musician.

The Republican-led House Judiciary Committee tabled the proposal after Democrats tried to force a vote, riling some members of the highly partisan panel.

“This is one of the most important bills of this session,” said Rep. Ellie Hill Smith, a Democrat from Missoula. “The partisan hijinks surrounding this are sad.”

While the measure is being sponsored by a Republican — Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls — Democrats have been pushing hard for passage.

“I was committed to saying yes on this, but because of the partisan railroad that just happened, I’m proud to table it,” said Rep. Barry Usher, a Republican from Billings who objected to the political maneuvering by Democrats in the Judiciary Committee.

The hyper-partisanship came after the chair of the Republican Party, Rep. Jeff Essmann of Billings, recently told party loyalists that conducting the special election by mail would benefit Democrats and could hurt Republicans.

Democrats could make another attempt to pull the measure off the table in committee, but acknowledged that they are short of the Republican votes to do so.

The more likely scenario is to “blast” the measure onto the House floor for a vote — but supporters would need to amass at least 20 Republican votes to reach the required 60 votes to win passage in a chamber that favors Republicans 59-41.

One Democrat has previously expressed her opposition.

Ravalli County Clerk Regina Plettenberg said her office needs to get guidance from the Legislature by April 10 — which is the deadline to submit a mail ballot plan.

“We don’t want to have to wait that long,” said Plettenberg, whose county might have to dip into budget reserves to help cover the cost of the election. The county is already scrambling to find another polling place because Hamilton High School officials will be preparing their gymnasium for graduation ceremonies.

About half of her county’s 26,000 active voters already vote by mail.

Earlier this week, Plettenberg sent a letter to members of the House urging them to act quickly on deciding whether counties will be allowed to conduct the election by mail.

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