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Hundreds gather to vote, driven by healthcare, public lands and economy

The General Election marked the first test of Missoula County’s new elections center, where hundreds had gathered in line by 8 a.m. to cast a vote. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Hundreds of voters gathered in line early Tuesday morning at the Missoula County Elections Center, eager to take part in what’s shaping up to be a record-setting turnout.

Roughly 84.2% of the ballots issued had been returned by 9 a.m. on Tuesday, or roughly 66,687 ballots. By comparison, the voter turnout in the last federal General Election in 2016 in Missoula County was 73.6%

“It seems to be going well,” said Allison Franz, the county’s communications director. “People are stretched out a little with the social distancing.”

The General Election marked the first test of the county’s new elections center. The line snaked through the parking lot out to Russell Street, and parking was difficult to find.

But the county had placed heaters to help keep voters warm during their wait and ran a shuttle from McCormick Park to ease parking restraints. Many had been in line for more than an hour.

“Elections are really important,” said Brook Johnston, who had been in line since 7:30 a.m. “As a woman, we always haven’t had the right to vote, so making sure I go vote is really important.”

Brian Lodato also had gathered early, hoping to vote before work and not after, when he feared the wait would be even longer. He considered the issues that brought him to the poll.

“Definitely public lands, because I hunt and fish, so it’s a big one for me,” he said. “I’m kind of all over the place with my ideals, so it’s a mix and match.”

A number of major statewide races and ballot initiatives will be decided shortly after polls close at 8 p.m. on Tuesday. Montana will chose a new governor and a new representative in the U.S. House.

Voters will also decide whether incumbent Sen. Steve Daines stays in office or Gov. Steve Bullock replaces him.

“It’s really important that we remove some of the people in office,” said Devon Sickles, who said women’s rights and immigration were big issues for her. “Healthcare is a huge one, too. I’m a healthcare worker, so healthcare is a big one for me.”

Voters will also decide whether to approve medical marijuana and, in the Missoula County, voters will decide a mill levy requested by Mountain Line and a vote for county commissioner.

In 2016, 52% of Missoula County voters chose Hillary Clinton versus 22% for Donald Trump, though Trump won the state by roughly 20%.

“I’m voting on mostly gun rights and the economy,” said Logan Plute. “That’s about it.”