Flathead County on Pace for Record Voter Turnout

More than 30,000 ballots already returned as of Oct. 26, elections officials have registered thousands of new voters in last two weeks

By Micah Drew
A voter drops a ballot into a collection box at the Flathead County Elections Department on Oct. 22, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County South Campus Building was bustling on Oct. 21 as voters entered through the main floor doors and dropped pink ballots into the two red ballot boxes, watched by two volunteers. At the top of the stairs, a line stretched down the hallway as people waited to register or vote in person.

Inside the election office, workers processed stacks of pink envelopes, sorted mail trays of returned ballots and tried to respond to the phones ringing off the hooks.

“People shouldn’t call us and expect an answer,” one election worker said. “I’ve got 181 messages and I’ll bet most of them are asking whether a ballot has been accepted.”

Election worker Amanda Hovila said the same was true about emails. Her inbox has more than 300 unread emails, of which she expects “60-70% are asking about ballot status.”

Voters are urged to go to the Montana My Voter Page on the Secretary of State’s website to check the status of a mailed or returned ballot.

“Other than the constant calls, it’s going pretty good,” Hovila said. “We have a very high turnout of voters.”

Because Flathead County is one of 46 counties in Montana that adopted an all-mail format for the Nov. 3 general election, election officials already had an idea of voter turnout well in advance of Election Day.

On Oct. 9, ballots were sent out to 66,181 active voters in Flathead County, just shy of the 68,949 ballots that were sent to registered voters for the June 2 primary election.

In the last two weeks, ballots have been returned at the highest rate officials have ever seen.

As of Monday evening, the county reported having received and processed 39,094 ballots, 59% of the total sent out. Statewide the return rate is over 64%.

Flathead County election officials estimate the office will continue to receive around 1,000 returned ballots a day through Nov. 2 and has thousands more in the validation process.

Because of the high volume of ballots being returned, officials noted that it takes around 48 hours before a ballot is processed in the system, and occasionally longer depending on the number of workers and how many ballots come into the office at a time. On a single day, Oct. 14, the department received more than 12,000 ballots alone, leading to a longer turnaround time.

Beverley Zierow, left, and other staff validate and sort thousands of voted ballots at the Flathead County Elections Department on Oct. 22, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Once ballots are dropped off or received via mail, election workers organize them into bundles of 25 by precinct. Once a bundle is full, the signatures are verified and the ballot is either accepted or denied.

Hovila said mistakes on returned ballots are usually rectified swiftly. She pointed to a small stack of envelopes, around 150, set aside because voters had forgotten to sign them. Election officials call every voter with a ballot problem — a missing signature, using a marker rather than a pen, or a couple signing the wrong ballots.

“We’ve been quite surprised — people get over here and sign them real quickly,” Hovila said. “We had three people in a row come in and say they’d gotten a call within the hour. They’re all pretty receptive.”

Voters were less receptive about the initial ballot box that was installed on the main floor of the building. That box was a giant garbage receptacle covered with red, white and blue. The large size meant election workers didn’t have to empty it as often.

“Because of public outcry, which exploded on Facebook, we had to change it,” Hovila said, adding that people have been happier with the smaller ballot boxes. “People felt like their ballots were being put in a trash can and thrown out.”

Officials are emphatic that no ballots are thrown out or go uncounted as long as voters come in if they receive a phone call.

In the 2016 general election, Flathead County had 67,112 registered voters with 48,290 votes cast, a turnout rate of 72%. Hovila estimates the county is on track to potentially surpass that before Election Day.

Since ballots were sent out Oct. 9, Flathead County has registered thousands of new voters, bringing the total active voter list for the general election to 75,612. A 72% turnout would mean 54,440 votes cast, a 12% increase from 2016.

Under Montana state law, election officials can begin tabulating ballots the Monday before Election Day. In Flathead County, the elections office will work from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and expects to process 25,000-30,000 ballots that day.

The department has two vote-counting machines that will run nonstop. Each machine can process around 200 ballots a minute. The machines take note of any smudges or creases that might cause a ballot to be misread, and officials count those ballots by hand.

On Election Day, counting will begin at 8 a.m. and continue until all ballots are tallied.

“This all-mail format is better for the most part,” Flathead County Election Manager Monica Eisenzimer said, noting that any changes are hard to convey to voters and have led to some confrontations.

But Eisenzimer said the process overall has been working well so far, and anticipates it will continue that way.

“Everyone’s a little stressed,” Eisenzimer said. “But we work in elections. We’re used to this.”

This story has been updated with returned ballot counts and new voter registrations as of 11 a.m., Oct. 28.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.