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Proposed law could change vote-counting procedures in future Montana elections

Election worker
Posted at 6:43 PM, Jan 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-19 20:43:18-05

HELENA — On Tuesday during the House State Administration Hearing, a bill was heard that could change the way votes are tallied in local, state, and federal elections going forward by requiring all votes to be counted without adjourning, once counting starts and requiring that any official vote count must be open to public observation.

Representative Lyn Hellegaard, a Republican from Missoula, sponsored House Bill 196 to bring back a portion of a law (SB 162, Section 13-15-101) that was changed during the 2019 legislative session that allows vote counting to be paused overnight and resume the next day.

Hellegaard said in her closing statement at Tuesday's committee hearing, the goal of having votes counted in one sitting and open to public observation, is to increase faith in elections.

"All we're asking is that we go back to the protocols that were in place in 2019. And since this language was removed, the voters having the integrity and security of our elections has eroded. I ask it do pass in an effort to start restoring voter trust,” said Rep. Hellegaard.

According to a Gallup poll that was published in Nov. 2022, with data from Jan. 2022, 63% of those polled are either very or somewhat confident in the accuracy of election results.

The same poll shows a large gap between answers given by self-identified Democrats and Republicans. 40% of those who identified as a Republican and voted in the poll said they were very or somewhat confident in the accuracy of election results, while 85% of Democrats offered the same sentiment.

Dana Corson, Elections Director for the Montana Secretary of State's office, spoke in support of the bill, saying if passed he believes it would lead to election results being published faster.

However, election officials in Gallatin and Flathead Counties and the legislative chair for the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders testified in opposition to the bill. Their main concerns regarded staffing shortages, the possibility of working for days at a time, and the inability to start counting ballots early, as provided in SB 162, due to HB 196's language.

"Lots of people signed up to the election judges, work at the polls, to help here in the office: opening and sorting ballots, doing all those processes. We had big crews of those people, but when it comes to 2 a.m. in the morning, those same people are not really willing to stay around. And so my, my crew here is at the end of their capabilities, and there just isn't those temporary workers to be able to support the processes that we have to do," said Eric Semerad, Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder.

“We used to do the count without ceasing. I can tell you sometimes, we worked 30 to 40 hours without a break, without sleep. And that was for elections that there weren't even any concerns with," said Debbie Pierson, Flathead County Clerk and Recorder.

Lawmakers on the House State Administration committee posed several questions about how the bill could be logistically enforced or amended, with further discussion to be expected in the coming days and weeks. The committee did not make a decision at Tuesday's hearing on whether to advance the bill.