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When Rina Moore and her staff at the Cascade County Election Office mailed out nearly 43,000 ballots in early October, they hoped that, eventually, the vast majority would come back.

They did not expect a tidal wave of returns to hit them the following week. In a single day, Oct. 13, Moore said, her office received roughly 12,000 ballots. 

“How quickly ours came back was kind of a shock,” said Moore, the county’s clerk and recorder of 14 years. “It kind of took us by surprise, actually.”

As of Oct. 23, Cascade County, which encompasses Great Falls, has received 52% of the ballots that were sent to registered voters. Other highly populated counties are reporting similar statistics, according to daily totals reported to the secretary of state’s office. Lewis and Clark County is reporting nearly 59% of ballots returned, with Silver Bow close behind at 57%. Voters still have more than a week, including Election Day, to cast their ballot. 

The initial surge, which Moore said involved a line of voters parking cars in the middle of the street to hand deliver ballots to the county office, has since slowed down. But the office is still dealing with a steady stream of voters requesting assistance — over the course of a 10-minute phone call, Moore repeatedly asked a reporter and various staff members in her office to “hold on” while she dealt with other matters. Eventually, when yet another voter appeared at the counter, she asked to recommence the interview later in the day.

“I don’t think people realize how common a mail election is in Montana. At this point, I probably know how to run a mail election better than I do a poll election.”

LAKE COUNTY election administrator KATIE HARDING

Voting by mail is far from a new phenomenon in Montana. The practice goes back three decades and remains the predominant method of casting ballots statewide. In 2018, 73% of registered voters participated via mail after requesting that an absentee ballot be sent to them. In June, when counties were permitted to proceed with a fully mail-in primary due to the coronavirus pandemic, election administrators reported impressive turnout and few mishaps. In preparation for a mail-in election in October and November, local officials had even more time to prepare. 

“Honestly, I’ve just had to laugh — everyone is saying, ‘oh, you must be so stressed out,’” said Katie Harding, election administrator for Lake County. While the sheer number of ballots can present challenges for her small staff, Harding said the administrative process is routine. 

“I don’t think people realize how common a mail election is in Montana,” she continued. “At this point, I probably know how to run a mail election better than I do a poll election.”

Despite having confidence in the logistics of mail-in voting, several local administrators said this election has presented plenty of new challenges. COVID-19 is leading election officials to vigilantly disinfect their office materials and ensure that members of the public stay six feet apart when waiting to register or request a replacement ballot. The specter of the virus is also creating anxiety among staff members, many of whom don’t have the ability to work from home or easily find a replacement if they become sick and have to quarantine. 

“It’s been insane,” said Taryn Aberg, the election administrator in Valley County, where health officials have been debating whether to enforce stricter public health measures as the virus spreads. “Now crazy is our new normal.”

If new measures are passed before Nov. 3, Aberg said, her staff will find ways to adapt. 

“We’ll make it work and get everybody through and get it done,” she said. 

Perhaps the most aggravating challenge of this election cycle, several election officials said, is the range of misinformation among voters that staffers are regularly forced to intercept and correct.  

In multiple counties, voters have reportedly been confused about the nature of a mail-in election, wrongly understanding it to be substantively different from absentee voting. 

“I do have a lot of people who are on the fence about it. I don’t think they understand the process,” Aberg said. “Once they come and talk it out they feel so much better about it. It just kills me because they’re the ones who are already registered to vote absentee.”

In Cascade County, Moore said, her staff has dealt with widespread confusion about whether absentee voters need to re-register for a mail-in election. Some of the frenzy, she said, has been sparked by political and civic groups sending out mailers warning that some resident in a household might not be registered. That can lead absentee voters to fill out and mail redundant forms to the county, which employees then have to spend time cross-checking against registrations that are already on the books.

Other voters have recounted misleading calls, texts and social media posts that made them question the integrity of the process, Moore said. One man said he received a spam call alleging that his signature on file did not match the one on his ballot, even though his absentee ballot had already been listed as “accepted” on the state’s My Voter Page. Dozens of other concerned citizens called after reportedly reading a Facebook post claiming that ballots would be thrown out if the voter failed to write “2020” in the dateline, rather than an abbreviated “20.”

“This is the kind of stuff we’re dealing with,” Moore said. “We didn’t have any issues during the primary. Then all of the sudden this flood of garbage started coming into the office.”

In Lake County, Harding partly attributed the increase in misinformation to Montanans consuming news about chaotic voting processes unfolding in other states. She’s also fielded calls from voters concerned about misinformation they’ve seen on social media, including allegations that the county will automatically discard military ballots, or count absentee ballots only if a race becomes extremely close.

“[There will be] one post that’s just so incorrect,” Harding said about rumors on social media, “and everyone will share it without verifying it first.”

From now until Election Day, correcting falsehoods about the voting process is just one task on election administrators’ extensive to-do lists. 

Montana allows officials in larger counties to remove ballots from their secrecy envelopes on the Thursday and Friday before Election Day in order to smooth out the folds in the paper to make them easier to run through scanning machines. In qualifying counties, opened ballots are placed in secure containers and locked away, often under the eye of security cameras, until election workers can begin tabulating them the following Monday. 

On Election Day itself, counties that decided to proceed with poll elections will also be open for in-person voting. Once they start ballot tabulation on Tuesday, Nov. 3, counties must continue counting ballots until there are no additional votes to process. (Voters can check their registration status and learn what type of election their county is conducting by visiting the secretary of state’s voter information website.)

Montana is one of roughly two dozen states that allow for same-day voter registration. On Nov. 3, that will likely mean lines of people waiting to fill out the required form before casting their ballot, in addition to voters waiting for a replacement ballot if theirs was damaged or marked in error. 

Some counties, including Yellowstone and Cascade, typically move their election operations to larger venues for Election Day proceedings, such as the MetraPark campus in Billings or a county fairgrounds. During the pandemic, having a large space to spread out helps ensure the safety of voters and election workers. Still, Moore said, she’s been urging voters to resolve any outstanding registration issues and cast their ballots well in advance of Election Day.

“It might be cold, the line is going to be long,” Moore said. “You’re going to really appreciate it when the time comes.”

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Mara writes about health and human services stories happening in local communities, the Montana statehouse and the court system. She also produces the Shared State podcast in collaboration with MTPR and YPR. Before joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked in podcast and radio production at Slate and WNYC. She was born and raised in Helena, MT and graduated from Seattle University in 2016.