Montana Secretary of State Appealing Later Ballot Deadline

Judge ruled ballots postmarked by Election Day 2020 can be counted if received by county election offices the following Monday

By AMY BETH HANSON, Associated Press
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. Beacon File Photo

HELENA — Montana’s secretary of state has filed notice that he plans to appeal a court ruling that extended the deadline for county elections offices to accept 2020 general election ballots returned by mail.

Attorney General Tim Fox filed the notice Monday with the Montana Supreme Court that Secretary of State Corey Stapleton is appealing Judge Donald Harris’ ruling. The notice does not include the arguments for appeal.

Harris ruled late Friday that ballots postmarked by Election Day 2020 can be counted as long as they’re received by county election offices by the following Monday, citing inconsistent mail delivery times and the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic is leading more people to vote by mail.

Montana law requires ballots to be received in election offices by 8 p.m. on Election Day in order to be counted.

Harris had ruled in May that any ballots for the June primary should be accepted if they were postmarked on or before June 2, the primary election day. However, the Montana Supreme Court blocked that ruling, saying ballots had already been mailed to voters. The instructions accompanying the ballots said in three places that they must be returned to election offices by 8 p.m. on June 2, the state argued at the time.

Ballots and voting instructions are to be mailed to voters starting on Oct. 9.

Harris’s ruling last week also extended until Nov. 12 the time allowed for voters to correct errors on mailed-in ballots, such as a missing or mismatched signature, again, just for November’s election.

Harris said the Montana Legislature, which meets in 2021, could decide whether to make any deadline changes permanent.

In separate rulings Friday both Harris and District Judge Jessica Fehr declared unconstitutional a state law that put restrictions on third-party ballot gathering, saying ballot gathering efforts help low income and rural residents vote.

Montana has highly competitive races for U.S. Senate and governor. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines while Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte are battling for the open governor’s seat. The Bullock-Daines race could be key in determining the majority party in the U.S. Senate while a Gianforte win in the governor’s race would likely put the House, Senate and governor’s seat all in Republican hands.

The campaign of President Donald Trump is challenging in federal court the governor’s emergency suspension of a state law that requires polling places to be open for general elections. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, counties were given the option to mail ballots to all active voters.

Forty-five of Montana’s 56 counties have decided to mail ballots to active voters. People in those counties will still have options to vote in person starting on Oct. 2. Eleven counties will open traditional polling places on Nov. 3, will mail requested absentee ballots and will offer early in-person voting starting on Oct. 5.

Oral arguments in the case brought by Trump’s campaign and Republican Party groups were held Sept. 22 in Missoula. U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen has not yet made a ruling.

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