The Republican Flathead County Commission reversed course last week and decided that the upcoming general election would be conducted by mail, which is a smart move if they want more Republicans to vote.
At least 43 of Montana’s 56 counties, the vast majority of which have Republican election administrators, have chosen to conduct all-mail elections. Before Flathead County’s change of heart it was the only major metropolitan in the state that had opted to open up polling locations. In August, the commissioners unanimously agreed to move forward with in-person voting, with Commissioner Randy Brodehl saying he wanted to give residents an opportunity to “live as normal of a life as they can” during the pandemic.
Although the June all-mail primary ran smoothly and saw record turnout, Commissioner Pam Holmquist agreed, saying, “We told the community that we’d only do it once.”
So, it appeared Flathead County, perhaps the most conservative urban area in Montana, would be conducting a normal election, while more liberal and purple counties, such as Missoula, Lewis and Clark and Gallatin, would be mailing ballots to every one of their respective voters.
Regardless of whether one thinks a traditional election could be made safe, the move likely would have disadvantaged Republicans running in tight statewide races, such as those for governor, U.S. House and U.S. Senate. That is, if turnout trends in the general reflected those in the primary.
In June, 55 percent of Montanans participated in the primary, about 10 percentage points higher than in 2016. And in the Flathead, the increase was even starker. Just 38 percent of local voters cast a ballot four years ago compared to more than 50 percent this year. And those primary votes were overwhelmingly cast for Republicans, just as they were in the last general election when President Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by more than a two-to-one margin.
So why, exactly, would the conservative county commission make it harder for conservatives to win? Does it believe the election will be ripe with voter fraud even though the primary proved otherwise? Does it know that 70 percent of local voters already receive absentee ballots and vote by mail?
Who knows? But here’s what could have happened. Let’s say Flathead voters turned out at the same rate as 2016 instead of increasing 10 percentage points like they did in this year’s primary. Let’s also say those votes were cast for Republicans by about a two-to-one margin. That would mean the party could have left about 5,000 votes on the table compared to about 2,500 for Democrats. Of course, this all amounts to a bit of fuzzy math, but it’s far more plausible than believing more locals voting means more votes for Democrats (the primary numbers bear that out).
In changing his mind, Commissioner Phil Mitchell said the recent deaths of elderly residents at a Whitefish care facility influenced his decision. Holmquist joined him in the 2-1 vote adopting the resolution to authorize an all-mail ballot format.
Brodehl, casting the lone dissent, said, “I am not going to allow the political machine to influence this process.”
Whoever is driving the machine is not running on all cylinders.