Voting on Election Day

Voters drop off their ballots on Tuesday at the Gallatin County Courthouse in Bozeman.

HELENA —At an early morning caucus Wednesday, GOP leaders warned that a bill to give counties the option of a mail-ballot election to fill Montana’s congressional seat could cost Republicans the election, even though proponents say it would save taxpayers money.

Despite that warning, the Senate’s State Administration Committee approved the bill on a bipartisan 6-2 vote, later in the day.

Montana’s anticipating a special congressional election late this spring to fill the U.S. House seat now occupied by Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican. President Donald Trump has nominated Zinke to be his secretary of the interior, and his confirmation vote is pending before the U.S. Senate.

At the Senate Republican caucus meeting, state GOP Chair and Rep. Jeff Essmann of Billings and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton both spoke against Senate Bill 305, by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.

Essmann, a former state senator, said SB 305 was brought with good intentions, but he warned it could hurt Republicans.

The GOP chairman repeated comments he made in an “Emergency Chairman’s Report” email he sent this week with an analysis contending that the bill would disadvantage Republicans in the special election. Essmann predicted a mail-ballot election could increase the turnout of “low-propensity voters” and give Democrats an edge in the special election.

Jeff Essmann (R)

Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings

“All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door,” Essmann’s letter said.

Democrats, Essmann said, have “perfected the mechanics of using mail ballots” in recent elections. Essmann said he fears “the long-term viability of our Republican Party” if Montana switches to all-mail ballots.

Stapleton, the state’s chief election official, said he wasn’t there to tell Senate Republicans how to vote, but told senators they were the protectors of the Republican form of government. He urged them to think twice about “an all-mail-in ballot.”

“If you look at the three states that have done it, you can see that populism and direct democracy at its best, all three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — they do all-mail-in ballots and they’re all marijuana-all-the-time states too,” Stapleton said. “Is that what you want? Because that’s what you’re going to get.”

Defending his bill, Fitzpatrick said his bill isn’t an “all mail-ballot” proposal, but a plan for only the 2017 special congressional election to save counties money. He estimated counties would save a total of $500,000 by using mail ballots exclusively in this election in what is an unbudgeted expense that would be “back-breaking” for some counties. Gallatin County would save $100,000, he said.

His own analysis showed that mail ballots have no impact on election results, Fitzpatrick said.

“Last election we have the highest turnout effort, mostly by mail, and the best performance by Republicans,” Fitzpatrick said.

Some local government officials issued a news release Wednesday supporting the bill. They said they brought the bill to save hundreds of thousands of dollars and provide for an election that would not require trying to secure polling sites and election judges on such a late notice.

“This is a sad chapter in the history of the Republican Party,” said Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Susan Good-Giese, former state GOP chairwoman. “As Republicans, we stand for fiscal conservatism, and SB 305 allows us to spend considerably less on this unbudgeted, unanticipated special federal election. I don’t think people realize that the cost of running elections is borne entirely by counties, using property tax revenues.”

“Just what exactly is a ‘lower propensity voter?’” asked Janice Hoppes, Republican County Commissioner from Pondera County. “This statement further underscores the bad rap Republicans get about voter suppression.”

And Charlotte Mills, Gallatin County’s Republican Clerk and Recorder, also questioned Essmann’s claims, noting that there’s no “early voting” in Montana. She also said that liberal groups had had only marginal success in boosting absentee ballot returns.

“Republicans are supposed to be financially conservative,” she told the Chronicle. “Rather than looking out for taxpayers, they’re playing politics.... But my heartburn isn’t just from the money. It’s also getting judges and the polling places on short notice.”

Chronicle Staff Writer Troy Carter contributed to this story.

Second reading on SB 305

The bill, by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls, would give counties the option of a mail-ballot election to fill Montana’s congressional seat could cost Republicans the election, even though proponents say it would save taxpayers money. It faces a final vote today in the Senate.

See more on the bill.

35 in favor 15 opposed

(With 0 lawmakers excused or absent)

Republicans: 17 in favor, 15 opposed
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Democrats: 17 in favor, 0 opposed
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Chuck Johnson covers politics and the Montana Legislature for the Chronicle.

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