Volunteers

Election volunteers process ballots Monday at the Gallatin County courthouse. The 2020 election has already set records for voter turnout in Montana.

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A steady stream of voters lined up outside the Gallatin County courthouse and wound its way through the building on Tuesday morning.

Even before Election Day, Gallatin County had seen record turnout. By Monday afternoon, 81% of the 75,244 ballots the county had issued to date had been returned.

“The turnout has been super high, record high so far,” said Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder Eric Semerad at a news conference on Tuesday morning.

The Secretary of State’s Office reported Tuesday morning that 535,423 — or 82% — of the ballots mailed to voters had been returned. The state’s turnout had already exceeded that of the record-breaking 2016 election.

Gallatin County election workers began processing ballots last week and counting began Monday. More than 32,000 ballots had been counted by Monday evening, Semerad said.

Election workers hadn’t had any problems processing or counting ballots by Tuesday mid-morning.

Semerad anticipated that initial results would be available after the last in-person voters cast their ballots Tuesday evening. The initial results will likely include most of the ballots returned in the county.

However, the initial results won't include ballots from the county's deposit sites, which were scheduled to be open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Election workers will begin processing and counting those ballots after 8 p.m.

“I don’t anticipate being done on Tuesday. This is going to be a Wednesday thing,” Semerad said. “Wednesday morning would be ideal, but it’s possible it could go longer than that just because of the extent of the process that has to happen with every single ballot that we get.”

At the courthouse on Tuesday, election workers in high-visibility vests helped voters with dropping off their ballots curbside on Main Street. Nearby, a table was set up with a deposit box, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray and “I voted” stickers.

Inside the courthouse, tape and stickers on the floor reminded voters to stay six feet apart. Voting booths were placed throughout the building for in-person voting.

Only five voters at a time were allowed inside the election department office on the second floor. Even so, Semerad said voters were able to get in-and-out of the courthouse within an hour. Lines were shorter — about 15 minutes — at the fairgrounds where in-person voting and same-day registration were also available.

On the third floor of the courthouse, several election workers sat at tables processing ballots, while others fed ballots through the three tabulators.

In the parking lot, the Montana Racial Equity Project had set up a table with free snacks, masks and hand sanitizer for voters.

On Monday, Sheriff Brian Gootkin and Interim Police Chief Jim Veltkamp sent out a news release saying they collaborated with the election department and county attorney’s office on the election. They asked those who might have information about possible disruptions to voting to contact law enforcement.

On Tuesday, Semerad said there had not been any disruptions that required law enforcement involvement.

Leading up to Election Day, the election department held office hours at satellite locations throughout the county to limit crowds at the courthouse in Bozeman. They also had more deposit sites than they have in a typical mail-ballot election.

In August, Gov. Steve Bullock let counties conduct a mail-ballot general election in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Forty-six of Montana’s 56 counties decided to do so.

This story has been updated to reflect when voting ends Tuesday. All in-person voting locations and ballot deposit sites will close at 8 p.m.

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

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