By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Anticipating a record turnout for the 2016 General Election, the Missoula County Elections Office is ramping up its workforce and turning to on-demand printing technology to accommodate voters in rural communities.
On Tuesday, Missoula County commissioners approved the purchase of a Balotar printer. The $16,000 device will improve the voting experience for residents in Frenchtown and Seely Lake, and shorten lines during same-day registration at the Missoula County Fairgrounds.
“We’re using Balotar to print on-demand ballots at our satellite locations about a week before the election,” said Bradley Seaman, elections supervisor. “It will print ballots for any of the different ballots and will be really critical in reaching people in the outer communities so they don’t have to drive 150 miles to update their status and get a new ballot.”
In a given election year, Seaman said, the elections office prints more ballots than needed to ensure they’re available as voters move, update their status or register. He estimated the overrun at roughly 18 percent and said on-demand printing will cut down on waste an eliminate the need to stockpile additional ballots for each of the county’s voting districts.
“It’s going to issue the exact same type of ballot,” Seaman said. “The ability to cut down on how much overage we print – and to be able to print them on demand for that specific voter – we won’t need hundreds of different ballot styles for each possible thing. It should be a big step forward.”
County Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors said the new technology could reach hundreds of rural voters before Election Day. She believes that could help reduce previously long lines during same-day registration.
In 2008, when President Barack Obama was elected to office, more than 1,350 people completed same-day registration at the fairgrounds. When Obama was reelected in 2012, the number jumped to 2,000 people, many waiting more than three hours to register.
“Any time there’s a presidential race, especially one without an incumbent, we see higher turnout,” said Connors. “The average is a 15 percent year-over-year increase. That’s where we’re trying to get ready. Our goal is to get ahead of that.”
The elections office tested the technology at the University of Montana during the last election. County staffers will print on-demand ballots in Frenchtown and Seely Lake during the June primaries. For the General Election in November, the technology will be used Frenchtown, Seely Lake and UM.
The county will also increase its staffing and equipment this year. While 12 to 16 computers have been used in past years, the office will have 20 this year to handle same-day registration. The county also has certified 708 election judges.
“It’s going to be bigger than 2012 this year,” said Seaman. “We’re doing everything we can to try and help take care of voters where they’re at instead of sending them out to the fairgrounds because of the time constraints on Election Day.”