Counting Ballots, Midterm Elections 2018

Election officials count ballots Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2018, at the Gallatin County Courthouse.

Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill into law in time for Gallatin County to begin processing ballots for this week’s school district elections earlier, said elections manager Casey Hayes.

The new law allows election departments to remove ballots from envelopes three business days before Election Day — two days sooner than previously allowed. Counting also can begin the day before Election Day rather than when polls open.

The Gallatin County Elections Department began processing ballots for the school district election last Friday but decided not to begin counting until Tuesday morning due to the small number of ballots received prior to Election Day, Hayes said.

The change also allowed the county to save on personnel costs by removing the requirement for sequestering staff on Election Day from the time polls open until they close regardless of whether there was work to perform. Hayes said he does not yet know how much money the county saved during this week’s election.

By spreading election work over more days, the county also will save money because it won’t have to pay as much overtime to staff, Hayes said.

“We’ve been confident we’ve been able to maintain the same level of security and operations we’ve had in the past,” he said.

When counties begin counting ballots on Monday, only election administrators can view the results and any attempt to access them is recorded. While the results cannot be released until after polls close, early counting increases the likelihood that results will be released sooner than they have been in the past.

The elections department plans to begin early processing and counting in future elections, possibly avoiding situations like the 2018 election when it took Gallatin County 38 hours to process ballots in their two vote-counting machines.

Looking to the 2020 election, Hayes anticipates about 79% of voters will be absentee. Under the new law, Gallatin County could process and count most ballots before polls open on Election Day. The head start is expected to let the elections department to release preliminary results shortly after polls close.

To improve elections processing, Gallatin County is considering buying a third vote tabulator for about $103,000. The county is approaching the size of Yellowstone and Missoula counties, both of which have three tabulators.

During the legislative session, Hayes and Gallatin County commissioners urged lawmakers to pass the elections bill, while Secretary of State Corey Stapleton opposed it. The bill ultimately passed the Senate 30-19 and the House 41-9.

Perrin Stein is the county, state and federal government reporter for the Chronicle.

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