Missoula County Considering Switching from In-Precinct Ballot Tabulation to Central Counting

MISSOULA – In 2005, the number of voters in Missoula County who voted by mail was only 15%, while the rest, 85%, opted for the polling station. Now those numbers have reversed as postal voting gains popularity and increases turnout.

Meanwhile, the technology used to compile the ballots has also changed, leaving Missoula County with a decision to make. Should it continue to bear the cost of counting the ballots at the precinct level, or move to centralized counting?

The first would require a significant technological upgrade while the second would require a change in both attitudes and practices.

“We are already preparing for our 2022 election,” said Bradley Seaman, the county electoral administrator. “I need to train our judges on what they’re going to do, and I need to know how we’re going to operate in 2022. Will it be a central county or a county at the constituency level.”

Seaman threw that question to Missoula County commissioners this week as a public hearing began on the future of the county’s election. The county is the largest in the state that still counts ballots at the constituency level.

But recently, Seaman said, the Election Office had to upgrade its reporting system. It also bought new devices in 2020 that run on a different operating system than tabs at the speaker level. As a result, the county must decide whether to purchase new tabulators at the precinct level or move to a central count, completely eliminating tabulators and the costs that accompany them.

“We’re the largest county in Montana that still uses precinct-level tabs,” Seaman said. “When they were purchased in 2005, the majority of voters voted at the polling station, and the number absent was among teenagers. We reversed that. We now have 85% of our voters who vote absent with only 15% of our active voters still voting at the polling station. “

According to Seaman, upgrading to new tabs at the enclosure level would cost around $ 164,000 to purchase and install. The machines also come with annual maintenance costs and licenses. He placed this cost at around $ 6,826 per year for 30 machines.

Broken down by the current turnout at polling stations, the cost per vote in the first year of use would be $ 11.33 while the cost per vote over the next nine years would be around $ 15. $ 57. The cost of a mail-in ballot in 2020 was less than $ 4, depending on the county.

Despite the potential savings, counties in Montana do not have the authority to switch to a postal election under state law, which prohibits postal ballots in federal primary and general elections. While former Governor Steve Bullock used his emergency power to override this law in 2020, the legislature in 2021 revoked a governor’s power to do so in the future.

“We will still have polling station elections until state law changes to federal primary and general elections,” Seaman said.

As proposed, however, the county would maintain its optional polling stations for voters. But instead of tabs at each location, the county would move to a drop box. These ballots would be sealed and transported to a central count at the electoral center.

“There are substantial savings in doing away with our polling station tabulators,” Seaman said. “Instead of putting it in a machine that compiles it at the polling station, it is put in a drop box and transported here. If we set up our ballot boxes, we could focus on other steps rather than installing equipment and training. “

Other large counties have already moved to a central account, leaving Missoula as an outlier. The commissioners will keep their public hearing open for a week and make a decision later this month on whether to move to a central account or bear the cost of maintaining the status quo.

“Over the past 10 to 20 years, we have seen a big change in the number of people who come to their ridings and vote in person and those who vote by mail,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “What was once the in-person majority vote in their precinct and the minority voter absentee have since swapped. We still use technology and a system defined for a behavioral division that we no longer appreciate.

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