Special election likely to cost Missoula County an extra $140K

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

The outcome of several legislative battles surrounding next month’s special election for Congress could influence whether Missoula County dips deep into its general fund, and whether it has to spend an additional $10,000 to shuffle its polling stations.

As it stands, the county plans to open and staff 25 polling places, though it would prefer to conduct the election via mail-in ballots – an effort that would save county taxpayers around $140,000.

The county began printing ballots this week.

“With a polling place election, we’re anticipating about $230,000 in costs,” said Rebecca Connors, the county’s election supervisor. “If we did it by mail-in ballot, it would only cost about $100,000. The funding comes from the county’s general fund.”

The election was prompted when former Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Montana, was tapped by President Donald Trump to serve as Secretary of the Interior. That sparked the current congressional race between Greg Gianforte, a Republican, and Rob Quist, a Democrat.

While the state Senate had approved legislation to hold the special election by mail, a Republican-controlled House committee killed the effort, suggesting it gave Democrats an advantage. And while Gov. Steve Bullock attempted to revive the mail election through an amendatory veto last week, House Republicans haven’t acted on the measure.

With the election quickly approaching, the protracted debate among state Republicans has left Missoula County in a pinch, along with dozens of other counties that have been forced to plan for multiple election scenarios.

“We’re realistic at this point – I don’t think a mail ballot is going to get through the Legislature,” said Connors. “If it does, hopefully it’s before the 19th (of April).”

Forced to open polling stations has also led to conflicts with traditional locations across several Missoula County precincts.

Among them, Connors said, St. Joseph’s School is holding graduation on the night of the election, so that polling place has been moved to the Missoula Senior Center. Stations at Cold Springs, Chief Charlo and Russell elementary schools are also being moved due to year-end events, as is the Lolo polling station.

“I have 8 polling places impacted by that Thursday’s date that are closed,” Connors said. “Overall, it impacts roughly 36,000 voters that are active and inactive. We’re reassigning them to the closest polling location within the area.”

Connors said 50,000 Missoula County voters have requested mail-in ballots. Given that it’s an off-year election, she expects turnout at the polling stations to be light.

Aside from the $130,000 added cost of opening the polling stations, the county must spend an additional $2,500 in signage, postage and mailings for each of the eight polling stations.

“Since we’re expecting lower turnout, we’re not going to staff it like a presidential election,” said Connors. “The reassignment of polling places will definitely have an impact on our costs. Labor is about 50 percent of any election cost.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com