Flathead County Considering All-Mail Ballot for General Election

With decision left up to counties, election administrators say all-mail election eases pandemic-related concerns

By Tristan Scott
Election officials gather absentee ballots at a drive-through ballot drop off point outside the Flathead County Election Department in Kalipsell for the Montana primary on June 2, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County election officials hope to decide this week whether to hold the Nov. 3 general election using mail-only ballots in an effort to protect the health and safety of voters and poll workers amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Election Manager Monica Eisenzimer said local administrators had already been discussing such a move when Gov. Steve Bullock announced on Aug. 6 that he’d leave it up to Montana counties to decide whether to hold the November general election by mail.

If counties decide to hold a mail-ballot election, ballots would be mailed on Oct. 9 and return postage would be provided. Voters would still be able to vote in-person.

The procedure would be identical to when Bullock allowed counties to hold a mail-ballot primary election in June. Ultimately, all 56 counties opted to use mail ballots for the primary, which had record turnout.

County election officials and the Montana Association of Counties asked Bullock to let them choose to conduct a mail-ballot election in November, saying they were worried large crowds might gather at polling places.

In the Flathead and elsewhere, it’s also proven difficult to find election workers, many of whom are retired volunteers who fall within the demographic most vulnerable to COVID-19. Meanwhile, the coronavirus has rendered some polling locations, such as schools, unavailable or more difficult to pin down.

Bullock said he chose to fulfill local officials’ request based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that indicated in-person voting could increase transmission of the virus and because many election workers are older and, therefore, more vulnerable to COVID-19.

The Flathead County Commission will likely decide whether to hold a mail-ballot election locally in the next week, according to Eisenzimer, but a resolution has not yet been drafted.

“A lot of our experienced election judges don’t want to be exposed, and securing our polling places is becoming an issue as well,” Eisenzimer said. “The majority of our election judges are in their mid-60s to late-80s and they are not willing to be on the front lines.”

“Nevertheless, we keep getting calls from people accusing us of taking away their constitutional rights by not letting them vote in person. It’s the same old political thing in our current climate.”

Eisenzimer said concerns about election security being compromised by an all-mail election aren’t substantiated.

“We in the election department know how secure voting by mail is,” she said. “And the commissioners understand that too, but we’re all trying to accommodate the people. We’re going to get yelled at one way or another.”

Of the 60,851 active voters in Flathead County, 67 percent are already voting absentee, Eisenzimer said. For the county’s 10,000 inactive voters, all that’s needed for them to change their status to active is submit an absentee request.

“Voting by mail is so simple and straightforward, but we don’t want to force it because our voters in Flathead County are very traditional and they don’t like change,” she said. “We try not to poke them too much.”