Voting FILE

A voter fills out their ballot at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds in this file photo.

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Lee Grindinger has served as an election judge in Emigrant for every election in the last six years, but he won’t be working the June primary.

Grindinger, 65, has asthma and takes a medication that weakens his immune system, likely making him more susceptible to the novel coronavirus. At the polling place, he would likely handle ballots, putting him in contact with dozens of people.

“It’s a good way to see my neighbors,” said Grindinger, a retired furniture designer and builder. “But I think it would be a high-risk situation for me because there is no way I could do the job and avoid others.”

Grindinger, who is advocating for a switch to a mail-ballot primary, isn’t the only election judge who won’t be working the polls on June 2.

Gallatin County has also had a few election judges drop out because of the concerns about COVID-19, said election manager Casey Hayes. If there aren’t enough judges, the election department plans to use county employees at polling places and in the counting center.

“Because the vast majority of election judges are in an at-risk group due to age, the health and safety of election judges and voters is our primary concern,” Hayes said.

County election departments are moving ahead as if voting in the June primary will occur at polling places. Gallatin County plans to conduct election judge training online or through mailed materials. In Madison County, the election department is working to reorganize its election judge certification classes, which were scheduled for late-April through mid-May.

Even as they prepare for a traditional election, county officials are pushing the state for a mail-ballot election to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Steve Bullock could make a mail-ballot election possible in all counties, but he may defer to counties’ commissioners to make the decision locally. In a press call on Friday, Bullock said he has not yet made decisions about the June primary but would make changes early enough for local officials to adapt.

Hayes said switching to a mail-ballot election “would be the least impactful to the public health and the most efficient and effective change to make because there is already legal framework to conduct the election by mail.”

He added that the decision must come soon.

“The longer we wait, the more disruptions to this process will cause,” he said. “Even though the election is 75 days away, this is a ‘today problem’ because it takes almost that entire time to prepare the election.”

Madison County Clerk and Recorder Kathleen Mumme called a mail-ballot election “the safest and most secure route.”

Park County Clerk and Recorder Maritza Reddington also supports a mail-ballot primary. She is worried about equipping polling places with disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer because the items are in short supply.

“This is uncharted territory, not only are we preparing for a very busy election year, (but) now the safety of our community is of major concern,” Reddington said.

Some candidates have also called for changes to the June primary.

Whitney Williams, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, has repeatedly called on the state to require a mail-ballot election.

“We cannot fully predict when the growth curve of the coronavirus will flatten in Montana, so deciding now on a mail-in election makes sense to ensure the safety of voters and the vote,” she tweeted Wednesday.

Two candidates for secretary of state — Republican Scott Sales and Democrat Bryce Bennett — also support a mail-ballot election but said they’d like the final decision to rest with each county.

Montanans don’t have to vote at polling places in the June primary. They can sign up for an absentee ballot until noon on June 1 by calling, emailing or visiting their county election department.

Before the June primary, counties will hold a mail-ballot election on May 5 for school and special districts.

The Montana Office of Public Instruction has told school districts they can postpone their elections but doesn’t recommend doing so. State law doesn’t allow for changes to special district elections.

In Gallatin County, the May election is moving forward, Hayes said. Ballots will go out to voters soon and can be returned via mail or at designated drop-off sites. Some sites are at schools, so if schools are still closed, the county will find new ballot deposit locations.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at or at 582-2648.