Voting laws can vary widely among states. There’s Oregon’s policy of registering all eligible voters and mailing them a ballot unless they opt out of the program. And then there’s Mississippi, where absentee ballots require a notary and early voting is burdensome.
Following the 2016 election, Northern Illinois University ranked U.S. states on how hard — or easy — it was to cast a vote. Oregon ranked easiest and Mississippi the most difficult. For its part, Montana ranked rather high, logging in as the 18th easiest place to vote.
I would argue that seems a little low. Voting absentee is so easy in our state that a record 370,000 Montanans cast ballot using the method in last year’s midterm elections (out of about 510,000 total ballots).
That’s a good and bad thing. Good because 71.5 percent of eligible Montanans voted in the 2018 election, the highest for a midterm since 1990. And bad because so many people voted absentee that it overwhelmed counties’ voting machines, resulting in votes being tabulated days after the election.
There’s an easy way to help election officials. Many of them have already asked for it: Allow them to begin counting absentee votes earlier, instead of requiring them to wait until Election Day. And there’s a bill moving through Legislature that would do just that.
SB 162 would allow absentee ballots to be opened on the Thursday before Election Day and counted on the Monday, or one day, before Election Day.
“Allowing tabulation to begin a day early would provide more complete results by the close of polls on Election Night,” Casey Hayes, the elections manager for Gallatin County, told a House committee last week.
The legislation is a logical step to make our elections more efficient, and it has already passed the GOP-controlled state Senate. But not all Republicans support the change, specifically the man overseeing Montana’s elections, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.
Stapleton, who recently announced he is running for governor, had Dana Corson, the state director of elections, argue to lawmakers that the “bill decreases the integrity of elections” by opening ballots early.
Instead, according to the Associated Press, Corson suggested clerks arrive at 12:01 a.m. the day before an election to begin opening absentee ballots and at 12:01 a.m. on Election Day to begin counting ballots.
There’s nothing like having a bunch of sleep-deprived election officials counting votes to maintain the integrity of elections.
Corson then brought up the possibility of voter fraud. While admitting it hasn’t been reported to him, he added that it often goes undetected. To which Bret Rutherford, the election administrator in Yellowstone County, had an apt response: “The problem I have with a lot of those comments is: How do you prove a negative? You can’t.”
It’s true. You can’t. And this isn’t the first time county officials have locked horns with Stapleton and his administration. The parties disagree with how to spend money to improve the state’s election system, with counties asking for voting machines but the bulk of funds going toward a new voter registration system.
It’s also not the first time election officials have had to push back against unfounded allegations of voter fraud. In 2017, Stapleton alleged that 360 illegal ballots were cast in a special statewide election won by Republican U.S. Rep Greg Gianforte. When election officials asked for proof, Stapleton declined to provide any.
It’s unclear why Stapleton is opposing SB 162, but it has nothing to do with the integrity of Montana’s elections.