Powell County one of few to not adopt mail-in election
October 1, 2020
In the wake of Gov. Steve Bullock Aug. 6 directive, 45 of Montana’s 56 counties have opted for mail-in voting this year, but Powell County is one of the few that still plans to staff polling places for the Nov. 3 general elections.
Powell County Elections Administrator Jody Walker had planned to ask the county commission to change to mail-in elections this year, but said public comment at a commission meeting persuaded her to continue with in-person polling places.
As in Lewis and Clark County, Walker’s main concerns involved the availability of both polling sites and election judges, but the fact that Powell County is a smaller county aided in her decision.
“We are small. I wasn’t really concerned about the 50 people rule,” she said. “We don’t have any cases. We’ve only gone over four cases twice, then dropped back down to zero. Our community is different than the bigger ones.”
She said if Powell was a larger county, like Lewis and Clark, she would have probably gone ahead with a request for mail-in balloting.
“In Lewis and Clark, they’ve got to have huge polling places, with judges alone,” she said, noting they could have more than 50 people at polling place before letting anyone in.
For her, the most concerning location is the polling place in the Deer Lodge Community Center, where they’ll have six precincts voting
“We’ll probably only be able to allow three people for each precinct at a times and the rest are going to have to wait outside,” she said. Walker’s not worried about towns like Ovando, Elliston and Avon, because they have just three judges and are unlikely to have more than 48 people come in to vote at one time.
However, Walker conceded it still might come back to haunt her, particularly if there is an unexpected COVID-19 outbreak or spike that affects the number of judges available on election day. Her main concern is the possibility there could be an unexpected outbreak or spike in COVID-19 cases in the next month that would affect the availability of her election judges.
“Then we’d be in trouble,” she said. “It makes me nervous.”
Nevertheless, Walker said she’s had a lot of people step forward who are willing to be elections judges. “I’m hoping a lot of the people training right now will be ready to go. I’ll have a list of 10 people who aren’t judges right now, but are willing to be judges. I’ll have subs ready to go, hopefully.”
Absentee voting is still an option for voters in Powell County concerned about in-person voting.
“They can request absentee all the time, but if they really enjoy going to the polls and only want to vote absentee because of our situation right now, they can select ‘general only. They can select just this election. I’ll send them a ballot for just this election,” Walker said. “Absentee will drop off after this election, then they can go back to voting at the polls.”
Walker said currently about 49 percent of votes in the Powell county have requested absentee ballots.
“The people who want to go got the polls still can. The people who want to vote absentee, still can,” she said. “It just won’t be mailed out automatically to them. They’ll have to take one more step and come in and request it.”
Absentee ballots are slated to be sent out Oct. 9.
Walker said normal voter registration closes Oct. 26. “You can request by mail up until the 26th. After that you have to do it in person,” she said.
For anyone who does go to the Powell County Clerk and Recorder’s office to register and pick up a ballot in the week before the election, she recommends they vote it there and turn it in, rather than taking it with them and mailing it later.
Absentee ballots can also be dropped off in person at their office in Deer Lodge or at the local polling place.
Voting in Ovando this year will move from the school library to the school gym, which will allow voters and judges to spread out more. In Helmville, the community center remains the polling place, although they may opt to move voting from its usual location in the foyer to the gym if they decide the need more space to spread out.
Applications for absentee ballots can be mailed to the Powell County Clerk and Recorder 409 Missouri Ave, Suite 203, Deer Lodge, MT 59722.