Flathead County switches to mail ballot

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | September 3, 2020 1:00 AM

The Flathead County commissioners voted 2-1 Thursday morning to move to a mail-in election for the Nov. 3 general election, pivoting from their decision in late August to opt for a poll election.

Ballots will be mailed out to registered voters on Oct. 9 and collection boxes will be made available throughout Flathead County for those who prefer to drop them off themselves. And according to Monica Eisenzimer, manager of the Flathead County Election Department, in-person voting will be available at the county's election department.

A handful of Flathead County residents spoke at the public meeting both in favor and in opposition to the mail-in method and some called for the adoption of a hybrid voting model in which some people could mail their ballots, but others could hit the polls if they chose. After hearing public comment, commissioners Pam Holmquist and Phil Mitchell voted in favor of the switch, while Commissioner Randy Brodehl was adamantly against it.

Brodehl cited concerns related to Gov. Steve Bullock’s recent directive permitting Montana’s counties to decide whether they will hold mail elections. President Trump’s campaign, along with a handful of other Republican groups, sued the state of Montana over the directive on Wednesday, alleging it was a “power grab” and an attempt to “sway the election in his favor,” in his run for U.S. Senate.

Brodehl said Bullock’s directive “flies in the face” of state law and said the directive is a government overreach.

“Where do we stop if we don’t stop here?” Brodehl said. “I remain opposed.”

He also briefly discussed the commissioners’ unanimous decision earlier this year to hold a mail-in election for the primary election, stating it “was driven by pressure, not by our citizens, but by the political machine.”

Holmquist disagreed with Brodehl.

“I take issue with politics coming into it,” Holmquist said. “We are not being fair to the public if we don’t do this.”

Holmquist and Mitchell both said their decisions to vote for a mail-in election stemmed from the need to ensure the county’s elderly population feels comfortable casting their ballots amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Mitchell said a recent series of COVID-related fatalities at a long-term care facility in Whitefish was a sobering incident for him and was a major reason he chose to walk back his vote for a poll election.

“Should I have thought about this a few weeks ago? Yes,” Mitchell said about his prior vote to hold a poll election. “I will take the blame for that. Seniors should not be scared to vote because of the coronavirus.”

Mitchell said since Wednesday morning he had received 117 emails from individuals asking the commission to consider switching to a mail-in election. That number, he said, compares to 11 emails from others asking to hold a poll election.

Eisenzimer said about 70% of Flathead County voters have asked for absentee ballots as of Thursday and that number is climbing by the day.

While Eisenzimer said the department has had no issue securing volunteers to man polling stations, she did say there have been some challenges securing adequate polling locations valleywide.

The department has had to switch the location of 10 polling stations that voters are typically familiar with due to COVID-19 restrictions. She said while schools have historically been a go-to for voters throughout the valley, many have requested they be moved elsewhere. Eisenzimer added that as of Thursday there was no polling place for two precincts in the Columbia Falls area — a problem that would mean those individuals would have to commute to the Flathead County Fairgrounds to drop off their ballots.

“I understand the election department is having trouble securing polling places,” Holmquist said. “I think it’s confusing for the voter to move the location.”

Eisenzimer also addressed several questions related to voter fraud and mail-in ballots. She emphasized the election department’s close working relationship with the post office and said ballots are treated as a top priority mail item throughout the area. Among other security measures, she said each ballot envelope is stamped with a barcode that is unique to each individual voter, which ultimately prevents someone else from tampering that ballot.

“This isn’t Florida or New York,” Mitchell said. “Flathead County has a strong voting system.”