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Officials say Flathead voters can expect airtight mail-in election

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | September 20, 2020 12:00 AM

As the vast majority of Montana counties, Flathead included, prepare for an all-mail general election this November, election department heads, United States Postal Service employees and other stakeholders are working diligently to provide a secure election in which every ballot is accounted for.

Concerns surrounding a vote-by-mail election have swirled in recent months as President Donald Trump and others insist the method, which has proven to be successful in past elections throughout much of the country, invites opportunities for election fraud.

Trump has alleged ballots may be purposefully tampered with and that Republican areas in the country may not receive their ballots at all, among other claims, many of which have been refuted by entities including Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Associated Press and Pew Research Center.

And in Flathead County, officials say voters can expect an airtight mail-in general election.

Flathead County Election Office Manager Monica Eisenzimer said Flathead County has yet to experience an outright incident of voter fraud and as of Wednesday, the department and post office were poised to send 62,503 ballots to registered Flathead County voters on Oct. 9 for the Nov. 3 general election.

Eisenzimer said the election department’s close relationship with local post office workers is essential in ensuring a seamless vote-by-mail election and that the two entities have had years to perfect their mail-in ballot system.

Eisenzimer said in 2008, only 8,000 or so Flathead County voters were opting for absentee ballots, but fast forward to 2020, nearly 70% of the county’s voting body had already requested an absentee ballot prior to the Flathead County commissioners’ decision to hold an all-mail election. She said this is an indication that absentee voting is only becoming more popular and therefore, it is necessary that the post office and election personnel continue to adapt.

“We are partners and we work together all the time on this, constantly,” Eisenzimer said. “Over the years more people have requested absentee ballots so as that has grown in popularity we have had plenty of time to work out this system. We have it down.”

IN LATE August, the commissioners initially told election officials to proceed with a poll election. At the time, they said the decision was a matter of upholding a promise they had made to the public in late March after voting to proceed with a mail-in election for the primaries. Although the state’s COVID-19 outbreak prompted the commissioners to vote for a mail-in primary election, they were adamant it would be a one-time occurrence.

But in a 2-1 vote Sept. 3, the commissioners pivoted to an all-mail election. Commissioners Phil Mitchell and Pam Holmquist — the two to vote in favor of the switch — said their decisions were based primarily on making sure older adults feel comfortable casting their ballots amid the pandemic.

At that public hearing, a handful of Flathead Valley residents said they were concerned an all-mail election could be rigged and pushed for a poll election. But Eisenzimer, Mitchell and Holmquist said the county is more than capable of pulling off a successful mail-in election.

In an interview Wednesday, Eisenzimer said “99% of the time” locals want to “abide by voting laws and do everything right,” and if they don’t, the election department will catch those attempts as they have in the past, she said.

One common concern among vote-by-mail critics is the forging of signatures. Eisenzimer said the election department matches every signature to the one they have on file to that registered voter and if one appears even slightly off, they will contact that voter and hold their ballot until they come into the office and provide additional proof it’s their signature. She said this is common among spouses who believe it is OK to sign the other’s envelope before dropping them at collection point or the election office.

Eisenzimer recalled during the 2015 election when office staff reached out to former U.S Secretary of Interior and Flathead Valley resident Ryan Zinke because there was something slightly off with his signature. After contacting Zinke and later confirming his signature, the ballot was submitted.

“I think he was actually impressed to learn that this is normal practice at our office,” Eisenzimer said.

In addition to signature matching, each envelope is stamped with a barcode and label that is specific to each registered voter — a measure that helps the election department ensure each person only votes once.

She said in the off chance a voter does not receive their ballot via mail, the department will void the original one before sending a new ballot. She said even if someone thinks they can send in multiple ballots, the system will only register the barcode once and will only accept the one that has not been voided.

VOTERS ALSO have expressed worries over the efficiency of the post office and whether workers can handle high volumes of ballots amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The outbreak has prompted more individuals to shop online rather than in-person — a situation that has strained the U.S. Postal Service in certain areas of the country and has occasionally led to a delay in mail delivery.

But in late April, at the height of Montana’s shelter-in-place order, James Boxrud, the strategic communications representative for the USPS Western area, told the Daily Inter Lake operations the local Post Office had gone largely uninterrupted.

“The Postal Service’s provision of mail and package delivery services is not affected by state and local government actions that are restricting commercial and personal activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Boxrud said. “The Postal Service has so far experienced only minor operational impacts in the United States as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Eisenzimer said the post office “always prioritizes voting mail” and said this year, return envelopes will be bright pink so employees can easily spot ballots and make sure those are shipped quickly and appropriately. And while she said Post Office personnel have expressed no concerns related to the upcoming election, she also said Flathead County voters can help speed the process along by voting early

“If you get that ballot and you already know how you are voting, do it that day. Fill it out, send it in or drop it off, and that will make things easier for everyone,” Eisenzimer said. “If someone is trying to send in their ballot just a few days before the election, we would encourage them to drop it off at a collection box or the [election] department instead.”

The post office recently sent out an informational card as well that reads, “if you plan to vote by mail, plan ahead.” The document urges voters to mail their ballots at least seven days before election day in order to “give yourself and your election officials ample time to complete the process.”

Ballot collection boxes will be established in the cities of Columbia Falls and Whitefish, and one will be set up in the Flathead County Election Department. On the night of the election, there will also be boxes at the ARK building in Bigfork (the future site of the new Bigfork Library), Lakeside QRU and the Flathead County Fairgrounds.

For those who wish to vote in-person, the only polling place that will be open and available will be the Election Department at the South Campus Building. Voters will be expected to social distance and practice other safety and sanitation guidelines for COVID-19.

Voter registration closes Oct. 26 and voting closes at 8 p.m. on Nov. 3.

For more information on the upcoming election, go to https://flathead.mt.gov/election/index.php or call (406) 758-5535.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com.