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The Gallatin County Commission decided Tuesday to hold the November election by mail in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The commissioners voted 2-1 to hold a mail-ballot election after about four hours of public comment.

Ballots will be sent out on Oct. 9 and return postage will be provided.

Voters will still be able to vote in person at the county election department in Bozeman, which will be open additional hours leading up to Election Day.

Election officials are also planning to have satellite offices on specific dates in other towns, such as Three Forks and Manhattan, where residents will be able to register or vote in person, said election manager Casey Hayes.

Drop-off boxes will also be placed throughout the county for the month leading up to the election.

In the week before Election Day, mailed ballots won’t go with the rest of the mail to processing centers in Billing or Great Falls. Instead, the ballots will be sent directly to Bozeman to help ensure the election department receives them before the election ends at 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.

Residents wishing to register to vote or update their registration can do so at the election department or can mail, fax or email in a registration form as long as it has a written — not digital — signature.

Commissioners Scott MacFarlane and Don Seifert voted for having a mail-ballot election instead of holding a polling-place election as the county traditionally does for federal elections.

They said they wanted to ensure as many people can vote as possible without compromising their health or safety. They also said they have to make decisions now that will ensure the election can happen in November regardless of what the pandemic looks like at that time.

“Managing our election in this way (as a mail-ballot election) is the most certain way for our clerk and recorder and our election manager to move forward with the best shot they can,” MacFarlane said.

Commissioner Joe Skinner voted against holding a mail-ballot election.

Skinner said he generally supports mail-ballot elections because he finds them accurate and fair. However, because dozens of residents said at Tuesday’s meeting that mail-ballot elections can lead to voter fraud, Skinner said switching from a polling-place election to a mail-ballot election “compromises the perception of the integrity of our election.”

About 40 supporters of mail-ballot elections told commissioners that Montana has long held mail-ballot elections effectively and that even during a mail-ballot election, voters can cast their ballots in person. They also said mail-ballot elections are less expensive than polling-place elections.

“I don’t understand why we would question it when we’ve already seen it be really successful,” said Emily Allison.

Some pointed out that older people and those with preexisting health conditions are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and are, therefore, relying on receiving a ballot in the mail.

“Regardless of whether or not you personally feel concerned about the COVID-19 outbreak, I know that there are going to be a lot of people who don’t feel secure going to the polls and voting on Election Day, and I’d hate for something like that to prevent someone from making their voice heard in this election,” said Emma Bode.

About 30 people spoke out against mail-ballots. Most said mail-ballot elections lead to fraud. They said people could fill out other voters’ ballots and the voter rolls aren’t updated regularly, so people who have moved or died can receive ballots.

“Voting in person protects our vote from not being tampered with,” said Carol Brenner. “Voting at the polls is a God-given right bestowed upon Americans by our Constitution.”

Some said the commissioners should follow the recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, who has said in-person elections could be conducted safely in November if masks are worn and social distancing measures are followed.

“If you can go to the grocery store safely, you can head to the polls and vote safely,” said Graham Allingham.

Eighty-six people submitted comments via email, with 53 supporting a mail-ballot election and 33 opposing it.

Over the weekend, the Gallatin County Republicans and Gallatin County Republican Women created a Facebook event titled “Protect the Vote, Rally for America” and urged people to speak at Tuesday’s meeting.

About a dozen people met on the courthouse steps about 30 minutes before the commission meeting. Several were wearing Trump and “Make America Great Again” hats. A few were carrying American flags. One woman handed out yard signs for Republican candidates Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Greg Gianforte and State Auditor Matt Rosendale.

The Gallatin Democrats tweeted during the meeting to ask their supporters to call in to voice their opinions about whether to hold the November election by mail.

Election manager Casey Hayes said there is no evidence of voter fraud in Montana, citing data from the secretary of state‘s office. He also described numerous election protocols that limit the risk of fraud, including regular updates to the county’s voter rolls and the requirement that the signature on a ballot envelope match the signature on a voter’s registration.

“We have a robust history and provable canvassed election results that show how effective we are at conducting elections and conducting elections by mail,” he said.

Hayes said conducting a mail-ballot election is more practical than a polling-place election because it would be difficult to find and train election judges due to the pandemic. He also said some polling places, such as schools, might be unavailable and could be difficult to replace.

The commissioners’ decision to hold a mail-ballot election comes after an announcement from Gov. Steve Bullock that counties can decide whether to have a polling place or mail-ballot election on Nov. 3.

Since Bullock’s declaration, at least 25 counties — including Missoula and Lewis and Clark —have chosen to hold mail-ballot elections, Hayes said. At least six have decided to have polling-place elections.

In June, Bullock allowed counties to hold a mail-ballot primary election. Gallatin County joined the rest of Montana’s counties in doing so. At the meeting where commissioners chose to hold the primary by mail, they did so unanimously and received no public comment.

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

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