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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, under the powers of an emergency declaration he made earlier this month, told counties on Wednesday they can choose to conduct an all-mail election in June. He also expanded early voting.

The moves come as Montana is dealing with the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which had hit 53 cases statewide by midafternoon Wednesday. Bullock is also requiring counties to implement measures to ensure social distancing during voter registration and voting.

Bullock has previously closed public K-12 schools and some business where people gather. Some candidates in the 2020 election had called on the state to move to an all-mail primary, which is June 2. Bullock’s order does not go that far, but allows the option should counties choose to do so. Montanans can also request absentee ballots to vote by mail.

“This is about protecting Montanans’ right to vote at a time we face unprecedented challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bullock said in a statement. “Locally elected officials best understand the voting needs of their communities, and taking this action now ensures they will have the time to make the right decisions for their localities. I feel confident we can protect both the public’s health and the right to vote with this direction.”

In a press release from the governor’s office, Republican Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, of Polson, said he supported Bullock’s decision.

“This directive allows counties to choose what is best for their voters and election staff during this state of emergency,” Hertz said in a statement.

Bullock’s office said it consulted with county election administrators, public health experts, emergency management professionals, the secretary of state and political leaders from both parties to make the decision.

While even early absentee ballots won’t be sent out until May, there are other statutory deadlines and other requirements to prepare for elections that counties face in coming weeks.

Bullock’s directive specifically allows counties the choice to conduct mail ballot elections and expand early voting for the June 2 primary; provides school districts with additional time to choose to conduct mail ballot elections; and requires counties to establish, implement and enforce social distancing policies at polling locations, designated drop-off locations or other public-facing portions of facilities involved in voting.

The directive also says even if a county decides to hold an all-mail June primary election, people can still vote in person during the 30-day early voting window.

Counties must submit plans to the state if they choose to conduct the June primary by mail. Those mail ballots would be released May 8. Early voting would be available in person through the close of the primary June 2.

Voters would not have to pay postage to return ballots by mail.

The social distancing would mean counties must ensure a minimum of 6 feet between people at polling locations, designated drop-off locations or public-facing portions of facilities involved in voting.

Additionally, the directive extends regular voter registration up until 10 days before the election, giving people time to space out that process to avoid crowding facilities.

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