UPDATED AT 7:10 P.M.
With 50 minutes left before polls close, about 200 voters remain in line at the Missoula County Elections Office at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. Already, the day has been a record-breaker for the county, with throngs of voters in line from the start. Watch Missoula Current for updates all evening, as voting continues and then the first results are released.
In the 14 years Rocky Allen has served as an elections observer in Missoula County, she’s never seen crowds like those that filled the county fairgrounds on Tuesday morning.
“It’s very busy,” she said. “Usually this kind of thing is a presidential election.”
This year’s midterm election is expected to bring a record number of voters to the polls. More than 42,000 absentee ballots had been returned as of Tuesday morning, or roughly 70 percent of those issued in Missoula County.
By 5 p.m., the number of returned absentee ballots returned ticked up 44,900, or nearly 74 percent. Another 6,600 ballots had been cast at 26 polling places around the county.
“We also have crews that go out and collect absentee ballots at the polling stations,” said Anne Hughes, the county’s communications director. “We need to get those here and seeded in, so we can get them into the tabulation center and get them processed.”
Montana is one of 28 states that has surpassed its 2014 early vote counts – a figure national experts contribute to President Donald Trump and voters who are looking to reaffirm their support or opposition to his policies and rhetoric.
In Montana, the high level of participation is also driven by the state’s two congressional races, including Sen. Jon Tester and GOP challenger Matt Rosendale, and Rep. Greg Gianforte and Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams.
Both races are considered a dead heat going into Election Day, and they’re also energizing young voters in Missoula County, where the outcome could sway both federal races.
“It’s a pretty contentious election – it decides who’s going to control the Senate and House, and it’s the reason I came down,” said Dylan Berget. “I worked in D.C. for a little while for Steve Daines and I like Steve Daines, although I also like Tester a lot. I’ve heard a lot on campus that people are trying to get out and vote. There’s been a lot of advocacy to get out and vote.”
Annie Berget, also a college-aged voter, said she believes her peers will show up at the polls this year. While in line, she saw a fellow student from her government class.
“I’ve met Tester a couple times and we’ve talked about different issues,” she said. “I really like his views, and he’s been very personable.”
Across the state, voters will decide a number of ballot issues, including a tax on cigarettes to continue Medicaid coverage for 100,000 state residents, and whether mining companies should provide a “clear and convincing” reclamation plan before receiving a permit.
In Missoula County, voters will also chose their next sheriff, a number legislative candidates, and decide whether to fund a new open space bond and mill levy.
But it’s the Senate and House race that drove many voters to the polls early Tuesday morning. Some looked to oppose Trump with their vote and send Tester back to Washington.
“I think (Trump) is making you want to go vote,” said Ashley Skartved, also a college-aged voter. “I think Tester and Rosendale and the open space bond, health care, all those things that are important to our age group, are motivating factors. I’m personally voting for Tester. Everyone we know, we’re trying to get them to vote.”
Polls close at 8 p.m. and the first batch of results are expected shortly after. The Missoula Current will have full election coverage throughout the night.