Flathead Commission Adopts All-mail Ballots for November Election

In a 2-1 vote, commissioners reversed course on previous decision to conduct in-person polls after a COVID-19 outbreak claimed five lives at a long-term care facility in Whitefish

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

In a 2-1 vote Thursday morning, the Flathead County Commission adopted a resolution authorizing an all-mail ballot format for the Nov. 3 general election, reversing course on an earlier decision to conduct in-person voting at polling places after a COVID-19 outbreak caused a number of deaths last week at a long-term care facility.

Commissioners Phil Mitchell and Pam Holmquist voted in favor of the resolution to adopt the all-mail ballot system for the Nov. 3 election, citing health and safety concerns due to the ongoing threat of coronavirus in local communities. Commissioner Randy Brodehl cast the lone vote in opposition.

Ballots will be mailed to registered voters on Oct. 9 and return postage will be provided. Voters may still vote in-person at the election department, while ballot collection boxes will be installed throughout the Flathead Valley so voters can hand deliver their ballots.

Prior to Thursday’s decision, Flathead County was the only county with a major city that opted to maintain polling places for the general election, frustrating local election administrators as they worked to secure polling places and recruit a new demographic of election judges after a number of elderly volunteers withdrew due to health concerns.

Flathead County Election Manager Monica Eisenzimer said her office has seen an uptick in residents volunteering to serve as election judges, but that public safety concerns had forced administrators to seek out alternative polling places, particularly as communities expressed concern about using schools and other public buildings.

“There will always be the opportunity to come into the election department and vote your ballot there,” Eisenzimer said Thursday.

Although a majority of Flathead County voters (70%) already receive absentee ballots and vote by mail, the specter of an all-mail ballot election rankled some residents who argued the threat of COVID-19 has been overblown. Other opponents to an all-mail format said it left the election more susceptible to voter fraud, an allegation that has not been substantiated in any of Montana’s 56 counties during any election.

“I will be blunt on this — there is no fraud,” Mitchell said. “We have a darn good election department and there is no fraud.”

Flathead County now joins 42 other Montana counties that have opted to hold mail-in elections in accordance with Gov. Steve Bullock’s Aug. 6 directive allowing counties to individually decide how they will conduct elections, citing ongoing concerns with the coronavirus pandemic and the risk of outbreaks at polling places as justification.

Mitchell pointed to Flathead County’s successful all-mail primary election in June, when the entire state adopted the all-mail format and saw record voter turnout. County election officials and the Montana Association of Counties pressed Bullock to give them a similar degree of latitude leading up to the November election.

However, Republican groups on Sept. 2 sued to overturn the directive, alleging that only the Montana Legislature has the authority to grant approval for an all-mail ballot election. The lawsuit lists as plaintiffs President Donald Trump’s campaign, as well as the Montana Republican Party, the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and names Bullock and Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton as defendants.

Brodehl referred to the lawsuit as the primary point of justification for his opposition to adopting an all-mail ballot format, saying the commissioners were being “driven by pressure from the political machine that wants a better way to chase voters” as election day approaches.

“Where do we stop if we don’t stop here?” Brodehl said. “I am not going to support the governor telling me what to do or telling me what I can do. I am not going to allow the political machine to influence this process.”

Brodehl’s assertion that the county’s top leaders were buckling to outside pressure prompted a sharp rebuke from Holmquist, who attended the meeting via conference call.

“I totally disagree with Randy’s opinion on this,” she said. “This is not and shouldn’t be anything to do with politics. This is about making sure that everyone has an opportunity to cast a ballot, and when you start moving polling places that people are used to having gone to for years, they are not going to know where to go.”

Mitchell acknowledged that his vote on Thursday marked a departure from his earlier position, saying the recent deaths of elderly residents at a Whitefish care facility made him think about the vulnerability of voting seniors in a new light.

“This has been a difficult couple of days, probably some of the hardest since I have been a commissioner,” Mitchell said. “I think everyone has the right to vote, even if they are still concerned about the coronavirus. Should I have thought about this a couple weeks ago when we discussed this? Yes, I probably should have. You can hold me accountable for that. I will take the blame. But since then we have had more deaths and that’s what changed my mind.”

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