BILLINGS — Montana's state schools superintendent race was headed for an expected recount as incumbent Democrat Denise Juneau held on to a slim lead of about one-third of 1 percent Friday with most votes tallied.
Republican Sandy Welch was preparing to ask for a recount that would span all 56 Montana counties. The prospects for a recount grew increasingly likely as late votes out of Yellowstone County finally trickled in over the last few days.
Welch can't submit her request until after the vote is canvassed and certified — Nov. 27 at the earliest, said Terri McCoy with the Secretary of State's Office.
The unofficial tally had Juneau up by almost 1,400 votes on Friday out of more than 464,000 ballots counted.
Those figures could change as provisional ballots are counted in coming days, and the race has to remain tight for the race to be recount-eligible.
But Juneau would have to get the majority of those outstanding ballots to rule out a recount. A recount can be requested if either candidate is trailing by one-half of 1 percent or less.
The superintendent of the state's Office of Public Instruction directs policy and steers funding for Montana's K-12 schools.
Juneau, who is seeking a second term, expects her lead to hold or possibly increase once more than 5,000 provisional ballots are counted beginning next week, said her campaign manager, Alexandra Corcoran.
But Welch campaign manager Mitch Staley said the Republican challenger expects to pick up additional votes, particularly in Yellowstone and Flathead counties, both of which experienced difficulties counting ballots.
Those woes dragged on for a fourth day in Yellowstone County, where officials on Friday still had not finished tallying up results on some ballot questions from Tuesday's election. Most results were in for the superintendent's race and other statewide and local contests, county officials said.
"With how long it's been taking, I can't imagine everything has gone down exactly right," Staley said. "We think there's some ground to gain and this is too close to say everything is fine the way it is."
A recount is automatic in Montana only in the event of a tie. Welch would be required to put up a bond and cover the recount costs for each of the 56 counties if the difference exceeds one-quarter of 1 percent. That would be the case if the current margin holds.
Montana's last recount was in 2000, during the Democratic primary for the superintendent's post. Because those results were so close — within dozens of votes — the state covered the costs of that recount, which ran into the tens of thousands of dollars, said McCoy.
In Yellowstone County, an unexpectedly large surge in late voter registrations and repeated problems with absentee ballot scanners kept election officials working for three days straight. They finally took a break at midnight Thursday, said Elections Supervisor Brett Rutherford.
Rutherford said the county's election machines had experienced similar problems in prior elections when processing absentee ballots. Those ballots each come in with a crease from being folded into an envelope that causes the machines to jam up.
But whereas in the past the machines would jam up every 20 or 25 ballots, this election it's been happening with almost every other ballot, Rutherford said.
The machines were bought from Omaha, Neb.-based Election Systems and Software.
Company spokeswoman Kathy Rogers said the scanners used by Yellowstone County are widely used but have experienced problems with the increased popularity of absentee ballots. Rogers said a newer machine that can better handle ballots with creases was certified for use in some states just prior to the election but is not in widespread use.