Montana's top election official wants to scrap polling places across the state in favor of an all-mail-ballot election, she said in Bozeman on Monday.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch outlined her plan Monday morning while helping Gallatin County election officials mail out more than 16,000 absentee ballots for the upcoming Nov. 2 election.

An all-mail-ballot election would have to be approved by the Legislature, and McCulloch said she is still working on the exact language of the bill she wants to put before lawmakers. However, she said a working group of county voting officials and voter groups decided all-mail balloting would improve election participation in Montana and save counties money.

In recent years, more and more Montana voters have taken advantage of laws that allow anyone to vote absentee. Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder Charlotte Mills predicted that nearly half of the ballots cast this fall will be by mail, and statewide, more than half of all ballots in the primary were mail ballots this year.

Still, counties must staff far-flung polling places for the dwindling ranks of election-day voters.

"I think it's less costly," Mills said in support of all-mail elections. "It's more efficient, and statistics prove that mail-ballot elections have higher turnout."

Mills said state law now creates a "three-ringed circus" with her staff, who must count ballots mailed in, ballots cast at polling places and ballots cast in her office.

Local governments in Montana already have the option to make their municipal elections mail-only, and Bozeman switched to mail-only elections in 2007, Mills said. McCulloch's bill would extend mail-ballot elections to presidential and other statewide elections and wouldn't allow counties to opt out.

"The county-by-county option doesn't work for state and federal elections," she said. "There would be equity issues."

McCulloch said she was pursuing the plan because she "thinks voting should be as accessible and easy as possible."

The idea got positive feedback from Republicans and Democrats on Monday.

Rep. Ted Washburn, R-Bozeman, introduced several voting reform measures last session and said an all-mail-ballot system has "a very good chance of happening."

"Sixty percent of my voters are voting by mail ballots already," he said. "(Counties) just can't get people to work as judges or anything else."

Dorothy Eck, a former Bozeman Democratic lawmaker and League of Women Voters volunteer, also supported mail-balloting, though she noted that some would rue to loss of the polling-place experience.

"I personally think it's a good idea, but I know there are people who just love the idea of going to their polling place where there neighbors are gathered," she said.

Currently, Oregon is the only state with all-mail-ballot elections. Washington state allows counties to have them.



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