Absentee ballots pouring in as Election Day nears

This item originally appeared in: The Billings Gazette

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Less than a week before Election Day and many Yellowstone County voters have already cast their ballots, according to statistics released Monday.

More than 63 percent of absentee voters in Yellowstone County have voted, according to Brett Rutherford, Yellowstone County Elections administrator. The number of ballots returned already exceeds the total number of absentee votes in Yellowstone County in the 2008 presidential election year.

“We’re at 35,600 returned. We’ve had a lot of people coming in and asking today for absentee ballots to be mailed out,” Rutherford said. “We’re kind of starting to direct people to come in” rather than have a ballot issued by mail so close to Election Day, which is next Tuesday.

Yellowstone County has the state’s largest population of absentee voters, according to the Montana Secretary of State’s office. Roughly 21 percent of Montana’s absentee voters, or 57,290, are registered in Yellowstone County. Whether voting in person or by absentee ballot, Yellowstone County voters account for one in seven registered Montana voters.

Political groups are committed to driving up the number of Montana voters because the election returns prove that getting someone who might not otherwise vote to at least register for an absentee ballot is effective.

“Last cycle, we reached out to sign up low-propensity voters for the absentee ballot system,” said Bowen Greenwood of the Montana Republican Party. “Low-propensity” voters are people who don’t vote often. Greenwood said the GOP specifically targeted voters it felt would vote Republican if they received a ballot by mail. It worked.

“We got 70 percent. We were actually extremely pleased with that,” Greenwood said.

The League of Conservation Voters announced in early October that it had managed to sign up 28,000 new absentee voters who were inclined to support U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in his reelection campaign against Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. In 2006, Tester defeated Republican incumbent Conrad Burns by 3,562 votes.

Since the 2008 election, the total number of Montana absentee voters has increased by 64,904, to a total of 285,949. Absentee voters are mostly concentrated in counties with urban county seats.

Theresa Keavney, Montana Conservation Voters executive director, said interest in absentee voting has increased in urban counties like Yellowstone and Gallatin, where the number of polling places has decreased.

The Montana Democratic Party has been beating the bushes for absentee voters, as well.

“We try to engage Montanans in the electoral process in every stage of the election,” said Chris Saeger, party spokesman. “These elections are very close and it all matters.”