Republicans divided over letting counties use all-mail ballots in special election
• By Chuck Johnson Chronicle Staff Writer
HELENA —At an early morning caucus Wednesday, GOP leaders warned that a bill to give counties the option of a mail-ballot election to fill Montana’s congressional seat could cost Republicans the election, even though proponents say it would save taxpayers money.
Despite that warning, the Senate’s State Administration Committee approved the bill on a bipartisan 6-2 vote, later in the day.
Montana’s anticipating a special congressional election late this spring to fill the U.S. House seat now occupied by Rep. Ryan Zinke, a Republican. President Donald Trump has nominated Zinke to be his secretary of the interior, and his confirmation vote is pending before the U.S. Senate.
At the Senate Republican caucus meeting, state GOP Chair and Rep. Jeff Essmann of Billings and Secretary of State Corey Stapleton both spoke against Senate Bill 305, by St Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls.
Essmann, a former state senator, said SB 305 was brought with good intentions, but he warned it could hurt Republicans.
The GOP chairman repeated comments he made in an “Emergency Chairman’s Report” email he sent this week with an analysis contending that the bill would disadvantage Republicans in the special election. Essmann predicted a mail-ballot election could increase the turnout of “low-propensity voters” and give Democrats an edge in the special election.
“All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door,” Essmann’s letter said.
Democrats, Essmann said, have “perfected the mechanics of using mail ballots” in recent elections. Essmann said he fears “the long-term viability of our Republican Party” if Montana switches to all-mail ballots.
Stapleton, the state’s chief election official, said he wasn’t there to tell Senate Republicans how to vote, but told senators they were the protectors of the Republican form of government. He urged them to think twice about “an all-mail-in ballot.”
“If you look at the three states that have done it, you can see that populism and direct democracy at its best, all three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — they do all-mail-in ballots and they’re all marijuana-all-the-time states too,” Stapleton said. “Is that what you want? Because that’s what you’re going to get.”
Defending his bill, Fitzpatrick said his bill isn’t an “all mail-ballot” proposal, but a plan for only the 2017 special congressional election to save counties money. He estimated counties would save a total of $500,000 by using mail ballots exclusively in this election in what is an unbudgeted expense that would be “back-breaking” for some counties. Gallatin County would save $100,000, he said.
His own analysis showed that mail ballots have no impact on election results, Fitzpatrick said.
“Last election we have the highest turnout effort, mostly by mail, and the best performance by Republicans,” Fitzpatrick said.
Link to Entire Essmann Memo
Read the Essmann memo in its entirety at http://us6.campaign-archive2.com/?u=c5f38a52a4dc1140da38b155b&id=933af3cfd4&e=ca123e9ed6
Link to Rachael Maddow Show on Montana Mail-In Ballot Controversy
Rachel Maddow had a very long segment on this issue including an interview with Governor Bullock. See this segment at