Election file

A jar of "I voted" stickers is shown in this Chronicle file photo. 

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Gallatin County will hold a mail-ballot primary election in June.

The Gallatin County Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to change the format of the election to facilitate social distancing.

“The reason for this is, of course, the coronavirus pandemic,” said clerk and recorder Eric Semerad. “This is the right thing to do for the health of our county.”

Mail ballots will be sent out May 8. The county will cover the cost of return postage.

Voters will also be able to return their ballots in-person. The election department is working with the secretary of state and the Gallatin City-County Health Department on how to do this safely, according to a county news release.

The June mail-ballot election won’t affect the November general election, which is still scheduled for polling places.

Last week, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock told counties they could each decide how to conduct their June primary.

“I’m just thankful to the governor for making this possible,” said commissioner Joe Skinner. “It would be nearly impossible to do this safely without this change.”

In the wake of Bullock’s announcement, several countries have moved to a mail-ballot election. Park and Madison counties’ commissioners approved a mail-ballot election on Tuesday. A handful of other counties — including Yellowstone, Missoula and Butte-Silver Bow — have said they’ll do the same.

Montana previously saw debate over mail-ballot elections. In 2017, when the state was preparing for a special election to replace then-U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican, state officials struggled to decide whether to hold the special election at polling places or by mail. At the time, Republican leaders voiced concern that voting by mail would be a disadvantage to their party’s candidate.

Ultimately, the state had a polling-place election.

This time, candidates from both major parties — including Republican Scott Sales and Democrat Bryce Bennett, who are both running for secretary of state — said they support the June mail-ballot election. The Montana Democratic Party also sent a letter last week to the secretary of state, urging him to allow counties to have mail-ballot elections. Montana Speaker of the House Greg Hertz, R-Polson, praised Bullock’s decision to enable counties to have a mail-ballot primary.

Prior to the June primary, Gallatin County will have a mail-ballot election on May 5 for school and special districts.

That election is moving forward although there have been some last-minute changes. The Bozeman School District has decided to remove some requests for tax increases from the ballot. The city of Bozeman has diverted money it had planned to spend on education about its ballot question for a parks and trails fee to its COVID-19 response.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.