By the numbers alone, absentee ballots are a big hit with Montana voters – and getting bigger.
As of Oct. 22, with two weeks of campaigning still to go, officials reported sending out more than 406,000 absentee ballots. That’s almost 50,000 more than were sent to voters in Montana’s 2016 presidential election.
Not all of those absentee ballots will be cast, but trends show that upwards of 90 percent will be.
That comes despite concerns from sponsors of a measure on this November’s ballot, Legislative Referendum 129, who argue that voting by mail is vulnerable to abuse.
If the referendum passes, it would ban “all but certain individuals from collecting another individual’s ballot.” The idea, supporters have said, is to prevent “ballot harvesting,” in which people unknown to voters gather up absentee ballots, promising to turn them into election officials.
To combat that fear, LR-129 would require individuals delivering ballots to sign a registry before collection that identifies them as a caregiver, family member, a household member or an acquaintance of the voter on the ballot. It would exempt elected officials and postal workers.
The issue of voter fraud in Montana arose after Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, said that 360 illegal ballots were cast during a special elections race in May 2017. However, no evidence was found to support voter misconduct. Stapleton declined to comment for this article.
University of Montana political scientist Christopher Muste said academic research has found no evidence of voter fraud by way of absentee voting.
“There’s no clear indication in the results that I’ve seen that there is a widespread problem with people taking in ballots that aren’t theirs and either not turning them in or turning them in selectively,” Muste said.
Since absentee ballots were sent out in early October, voters in some places have reported people knocking on doors, offering to collect and return ballots to the polling place. These individuals often work for political parties or organizations that are seeking to reach voters who they think are loyal to their views.
Passing a ballot off to a stranger may raise red flags of potential voter fraud, but there are no recorded instances that those groups are collecting ballots and not returning them to election offices.
However, it is difficult to track voter misconduct in the mail-in system. A voter would only know if their ballot was not processed by checking their voting record for an indication that they had not voted in the previous election.
Dayna Causby, Missoula County’s election administrator, encourages voters to give their ballots only to people they trust.
“We tell voters your ballot is your opinion, and you treat your opinion with care, as you would treat your grandmother’s wedding ring with care,” Causby said. “If you do not trust that person you’re handing your ballot to with your grandmother’s wedding ring, then don’t give them your ballot.”
Overall, Causby said the potential for voter fraud is minimal. Voters are contacted when problems arise such as mismatched signatures or an accidental household swap of ballots.
“There’s very little fraud from an election administrator standpoint,” Causby said. “There is voter fraud with malicious intent across the country, but it’s very minimal compared to the broad scope in the voting process.”
More significantly, voting by mail has changed how elections and campaigning play out because so many people are casting their votes earlier.
“It creates this bizarre dynamic where some people are voting before all the campaigning is happening and some people who are used to waiting until the end of the campaign are finding that not as many things are happening during that time,” Muste said. “As a group, voters are less unified in terms of the information that they have, and we are getting a mixed evaluation of the candidates.”
From Muste’s perspective, this means voters may be making uninformed decisions, potentially driven by party lines. But the system, he added, does provide voting opportunities for those who may not vote otherwise, such as elderly people who cannot drive or have health problems, busy parents who dread taking three screaming kids to a busy polling place, workers whose hours may leave no time to place a vote and many others.