Secretary of State: Later Ballot Deadline Could Be Confusing

Stapleton says deadline extension for mail ballots 'may cause voters to question the integrity of the election'

By Tristan Scott

HELENA — The secretary of state wants the Montana Supreme Court to block a judge’s ruling that extends the deadline for county election offices to accept 2020 general election ballots returned by mail, saying the ruling disrupts long-standing deadlines, could confuse voters “and may cause voters to question the integrity of the election.”

The attorney general’s office filed the motion to stay District Judge Donald Harris’ ruling Monday on behalf of Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.

The Montana Democratic Party, party chairperson Robyn Driscoll, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee challenged three Montana election laws: The 8 p.m. Election Day deadline for mailed ballots to be received by elections offices, the day after Election Day deadline for voters to correct issues with their mailed ballots and a state law that restricted third-party ballot collection

Harris ruled Friday that ballots should be counted for this year’s general election if they are postmarked on or before Election Day and arrive in 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.

Harris also extended until Nov. 12 the time allowed for voters to correct deficiencies on mailed-in ballots, also just for this November’s election. Harris said it should be up to the Legislature to determine if the deadlines should be permanently changed.

Harris and District Judge Jessica Fehr ruled in separate cases Friday that the Ballot Interference Prevention Act — a law that put restrictions on third-party collection of absentee ballots — is unconstitutional.

Stapleton is asking the Montana Supreme Court to block the changes to the ballot receipt deadline and the deadline to correct ballot errors, such as a missing or mis-matched signature.

“It is crucial that Montana’s electoral system not be disrupted at the last minute, especially considering the unique circumstances presented by COVID-19 and an (almost) all-mail election, as well as the importance of November’s election,” the motion states.

Montana has several highly competitive races on the ballot. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock is challenging Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in an election that could be key in determining the majority party in the U.S. Senate.

“The challenged deadlines are part of the foundation of Montana’s election system and changing them on the eve of the election will not only cause confusion, but likely also mistrust among voters,” the motion argues.

Harris had made a similar order on May 22, extending the ballot receipt and deficiency correction deadlines for the June 2 primary, but the ruling came after ballots had been mailed with instructions that said the return deadline was 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The Montana Supreme Court blocked that ruling after the state argued that it “creates inequality between voters who have mailed their ballots in early in compliance with the deadline who might otherwise have waited, and those who waited and are now able to submit on Election Day.”

Harris ruled last week that the state’s ballot receipt deadline unfairly requires some people to vote earlier than others due to differences in mail delivery times or would require them to risk exposure to COVID-19 to return their ballots in person.

General election ballots and instruction sheets have already been printed and county workers are stuffing them in envelopes, election administrators in Yellowstone and Cascade counties said Tuesday.

Yellowstone County is preparing nearly 90,000 ballots to be mailed out on Oct. 9 while Cascade County has about 45,000.

Changing the ballot instructions “is kind of an impossible task at this late stage in the game,” said Rina Fontana Moore, Cascade County’s clerk and recorder.

Bret Rutherford, election administrator in Yellowstone County, noted that the primary ballot instructions also said the Ballot Interference Prevention Act was in force when it had been suspended by both Harris and Fehr.

“Instructions are instructions though,” Rutherford said. “I’ve seen things changed by court order before.”

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