MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press Writer BILLINGS
Record numbers of Montana voters are set to cast early ballots this election season, as a tight presidential race stokes political interest and more people take advantage of laws that allow anyone to vote absentee. The heavy pace of voters requesting absentee ballots stretches from Republican strongholds such as Yellowstone County to Democratic bastions including Butte-Silver Bow, according to an informal Associated Press survey of the state's most populous counties. Both parties and also special interest groups such as the National Rifle Association have spent months urging voters to use absentee ballots. The parties are eager to lock up votes, which also allows them to focus money and resources on undecided voters. "You need to get started early and basically treat it as two separate elections," said Montana Republican Party chairman Erik Iverson. "I don't know if it's better for one side or the other, but you can't get outworked by the other side." More than 128,000 absentee ballots have been sent out about 20 percent of all registered voters, according to the latest figures from the Secretary of State's office. County election officials say that is the most absentee ballots they've ever distributed and could account for 30 percent or more of voters by Nov. 4. "It's safe to expect it to keep growing right up through elect ion day, " said Bowen Greenwood, spokesman for Secretary of State Brad Johnson. Nearly 11,000 absentee ballots have already been returned. They will not be opened until November. Montana has allowed "no excuse" absentee voting meaning voters don't have to be out of town or facing an unusual circumstance to qualify since 2002. In 2006, the state began allowing voters to register and cast an absentee ballot right up through Election Day. Campaigns closely monitor registration rolls and absentee balloting to keep tabs on individual voters. "Everybody who votes early is one less phone call that we need to make," said Caleb Weaver with the Barack Obama campaign. "It allows campaigns to get out the vote over a stretch of time. You have a month instead of just one day."