Absentee Ballot Requests Surge in Flathead County

Record number of voters registered in Montana and conservative-leaning Flathead

By Tristan Scott
Election stickers at the Flathead County Fairgrounds. Beacon File Photo

With the clock winding down to the Nov. 6 general election, state and county officials are projecting what could be record participation in the midterm contests that have gained national attention.

As of Oct. 26, there were already a record 703,327 voters registered in Montana, compared to 694,370 registered voters before the 2016 general election and 674,264 in the 2014 midterm election.

In Flathead County, a record 68,827 voters were registered to vote, more than the previous general election record of 67,122 in 2016, when 48,290 voters cast ballots.

Traditionally, voter registration slumps during midterm elections compared to elections featuring a presidential contest, but that’s not the case in the 2018 midterms as the Trump presidency spurs a fever pitch of political interest and candidates for federal office spend record amounts of money campaigning.

This year marks the first time since 2006 that voter registration did not drop for a midterm election when compared to the prior presidential election.

The wave of registration hasn’t missed the Flathead, where the amount of early voting is also up.

Of the 35,657 absentee ballots sent to voters in Flathead County this month, 13,583 have been received, while of the 412,196 absentee ballots sent out statewide, 176,024 have been received.

In the Flathead, an increasing number of voters are requesting absentee ballots every election season.

“That is 60 percent of our active voters requesting absentee ballots. And it’s going higher every election,” Monica Eisenzimer of the Flathead County Election Department said. “We thought 8,000 was a lot 12 years ago. We hadn’t seen anything yet.”

Numerous factors play into voter turnout, including the types of races and whether they’re contested tightly or at all; how voters perceive the significance of offices up for grabs and whether certain candidates generate outsized interest; the amount of money spent on ads and campaigning; the state of the economy or whether a certain issue of the day seizes the collective imagination; overall zeal or apathy of voters on any given year; voter laws and systems; demographics; and so on.

This general election features a bid by Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale to unseat Democrat Jon Tester, who is seeking his third term in the U.S. Senate. In another prominent race, Democrat Kathleen Williams is squaring off against incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte for Montana’s at-large seat in Congress, which Gianforte won in a special election last year.

The special election was necessary because Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke left the post when President Donald Trump tapped him for the cabinet position.

In addition to local legislative races, voters are weighing in on a bevy of contentious ballot initiatives, including I-185, which would raise the tax on tobacco products to pay for Montana’s share of Medicaid expansion, and I-186, which would require new hard-rock mines to make plans that avoid the perpetual cleanup of polluted water after the mines shut down operations.

Eisenzimer said a mailer sent out to approximately 90,000 Montanans at the end of September and early October containing an absentee ballot application sowed confusion among voters who had already signed up to receive a ballot in the mail.

“People were really confused about the mailers,” she said. “That was a lot to go through because we had to go through all of them to figure out who actually needed ballots.”

The mailers were sent by the New American Jobs Fund, a super political action committee that is a partnership between the League of Conservation Voters and the United Steelworkers.

Voters can check the Montana Secretary of State’s My Voter Page at app.mt.gov/voterinfo/ to check whether they are registered and track their ballot.

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