By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Heated presidential and gubernatorial races turned out record numbers of Hill County voters, with nearly 69 percent of registered voters filling out 6,782 ballots. Some precincts reported as many as two and three times the usual turnout. But at the Hill County Courthouse, where the ballots were counted, 16 county employees and six community volunteers prepared for business as usual.
Competence, confidence, and some complaints characterized the eight hours of work from when the polls closed at 8 p.m. to when the ballots were all counted at 4 a.m.
As the federal and state election results played on a television in the Hill County County Commission office Tuesday evening, County Clerk and Recorder Diane Mellem and her team barely found time to peek at the screen. When Montana's results first joined those from across the nation, Hill County's count was not yet halfway complete. Mellem ducked in for a moment to see how precincts across the state were doing. In the middle of her working night, she seemed more interested that there were results than with what they were.
"If they can call the bigger counties, they almost don't need us," Mellem said. But she quickly turned and went back to work.
The first precinct's ballots had arrived 20 minutes after polls closed at 8 p.m., carried in by scores of exhausted precinct judges.
"Do I look like I've had it?" Vicki Shanks asked as she carried the results from Precinct 16. Someone quickly took from her one of the boxes she was carrying. She said she'd been working since 6:30 a.m.
Members of the election staff took over the final stretch of the ballots' journey, bringing the boxes into a side room - the County Commission office by day - and then wheeling the extra materials, including unused ballots, voter instructions and pens and pencils, into storage. Those had to pass through a maze of folding tables and desks before they could be stored out of the way.
Meanwhile, county employee Helen Ricci stacked the metal ballot boxes on folding tables in the commission office.
While Ricci was hefting the boxes, a reporter asked her if she would be stronger tomorrow.
"We'll be weak," Ricci said.
Ricci was asked about the following day.
"Then we'll be tired," she said.
After Ricci stacked the ballot boxes, they were brought, one at a time, to Annette Swinney. Swinney is a city employee and a central count judge, one of six community volunteers who helped count ballots. She said she volunteers for the fun of it.
She, like many of the judges, has been helping out on Election Day for years. Some, like Lou Lucke, have volunteered for more than 20 years.
Swinney checked for torn corners because the ballot-counting machine cannot process torn ballots. Those are replaced by "spoil" ballots, filled out by the judges with the voters' choices on a pink, rather than the usual cream-colored, form.
When Swinney was finished with a batch, the ballots were snaked past two rows of desks and around another wall into a back room. There, the ballot machine sat, along with a table with the five other judges who checked for problems with the machine.
All of those steps began minutes after the first precinct arrived.
By 8:45 p.m., the search was on for sustenance.
Mellem, who said she had been in the office since 5:30 a.m. rechecking the ballot machine and fielding questions, asked, "Anybody see a lost Diet Coke?" She found it.
Diet Coke in hand, Mellem explained the ballot machine, which looks roughly like a photo copy machine, but with a larger screen. She tested the machines Monday and again Tuesday afternoon, she said.
Halfway through her explanation, Mellem made a confession. "I've got a sugar high right now," she said dryly.
Mellem is petite and composed, equipped to impose regiment on chaos. But at the odd moment during the long night, she was not afraid to show personality.
After 9 p.m., more carts weaved through the maze, people dodging them at every turn.
Forty-five minutes later, and nearly six hours before the evening was over, results of another type came in: Ricci was a grandmother to a brand new baby girl.
"I'll be too tired to remember in the morning," Ricci said.
At 10:10 p.m. it was official. Baby pictures arrived by e-mail, distracting as many as nine staffers at a time.
An hour later Mellem projected that Hill County's count would finish at 4 a.m.
County deputy election administrator Betty Williams has held her job for 26 years. She said that on past election nights, the latest she has stayed is 8 a.m. It was in November 1994, she said, when the machine jammed. "We were almost hand reading every ballot," she said.
Shortly afterward, Mellem noted that the machine had not jammed yet that night. Mellem quickly knocked on wood, but followed the statement emphatically: "We've just had so many ballots!"
By 12:30 a.m. the machine was jamming. Central count judge Russ Getten took the opportunity to watch the election news on TV for the first time, at 12:45 a.m.
At 12:50 a.m., Mellem was bent over the machine, spraying it with compressed air.
"What are you doing? Overhauling it?" one of the judges asked.
"I don't know what I'm doing," Mellem said.
Whatever Mellem did, by 12:55 a.m. the machine was working again.
Williams was at the television this time, thinking about Ohio's provisional ballots.
"They won't all count. There's no way they'll all count," Williams said. Making the second correct prediction of the night.