A reality based independent journal of observation & analysis, serving the Flathead Valley & Montana since 2006. © James Conner.

8 & 10 March 2017

Kill SB-305, the all mail ballot special election bill

Update, 10 March. I now oppose SB-305, and renounce my previous support for an all mail ballot election. I made a mistake: I was bending over backward to be reasonable (proof I&rsquom; a Democrat). But after further reflection and research, I’ve concluded there is no reason to believe that an all mail ballot election will increase turnout for a special Congressional election.

I continue to believe that early voting for the special election should be limited to two weeks; that the legislature should appropriate money to help counties pay for the election, which is a rare event akin to a natural disaster; and that the special election and school elections should be combined (even if the schools object, which of course they would).

A respected acquaintence of long standing advises me that the title of SB-305 precludes amending the bill to combine the school election with the special election. I have no reason to challenge that, but do note that in an emergency, there are all sorts of ways the legislature can suspend and modify the rules to produce needed legislation quickly.

If the House amends SB-305, it goes back to the Senate, increasing the risk the bill won’t pass. In my judgment, that risk is well worth taking if the bill can be improved. But because the bill exists to inflict an all mail ballot on Montana’s electorate, and I now believe that helps no one but parsmonious clerk and recorders (see David Crisp’s incisive critique at the Last Best News), I urge killing the bill.

When 25 May arrives, I want to be able to walk to my polling place (it’s only 1.5 miles away) and cast my vote in a private booth in a public setting where the presence of my neighbors reminds me that my vote affects everyone. If SB-305 passes, and I’m condemned to casting a mail ballot, I won’t mail it in. I’ll mark it on election day, then deliver it in person to the elections office.

Original post begins here. Holding two elections in May — school elections in early May, the special election for the U.S. House on 25 May — is inefficient and unnecessary. Senate Bill 305, Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick’s (R-Great Falls) bill to authorize counties to conduct the special election by mail ballot only, could be amended to required combining the 2017 school elections with the special elections. That would save money, but far more important, it would save voters the exasperation of two elections when only one is needed.

SB-305 should be amended to combine the elections. The bill passed the senate 37–13 on 24 February, and was heard in the house’s judiciary committee on 1 March, where it awaits action. I do not like mail ballot elections, but when I reviewed the literature a few years back, I found that conducting traditionally low turnout elections by mail did increase the turnout. Therefore, I do not oppose SB-305.

Other one-time changes needed

Cost. The legislature should also make a one-time appropriation to help counties pay for the special election. According to the Missoulian, a traditional polling place election for Missoula County’s 84,000 registered voters would cost $230,00, approximately $2.70 per registered voter. An all mail ballot election would cost $130,000, approximately $1.50 per voter.

Montana has 698,000 registered voters. The legislature should appropriate one dollar per voter to help the counties, taking the money out of the state’s budget reserve.

Timing. Under current law, ballots could be mailed a month in advance of the election, effectively shortening the campaign to six weeks. Voters may find that a blessing, but that’s not enough time for so important a campaign. Amend SB-305 to send out the ballots on 16 May and to allow ballots postmarked on 25 May to be counted.