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Governor uses veto pen to push mail-only voting

 


By BOBBY CAINA CALVAN

Associated Press

HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock revived debate over mail-only voting today when he used his veto power to rewrite a routine bill to allow counties to conduct the May 25 congressional election by mail.

The governor's action caught Secretary of State Corey Stapleton off guard. His fellow Republicans in the House, who had killed the bill last month, were scrambling to see if there was a way to prevent the governor's changes from being debated and getting a floor vote. They might be able to run down the clock, as time ticks for county elections officials to prepare for the election.

Elections officials from across the state found themselves caught in the developing political drama in the state Capitol, as time runs short for them to print ballots, arrange polling sites and assemble thousands of poll workers.

The 11th-hour political maneuver might be too late for some counties, who are already planning to set up polling places for in-person voters.

"At this point, many of us clerks can't keep fighting the battle in Helena. Our focus has to be on the election at hand," said Regina Plettenberg, the chief elections officer for Ravalli County. "At this point, we are planning on running this election at the polls."

Fewer than seven weeks remain before the special election to fill the state's only congressional seat, which was left vacant when Ryan Zinke resigned to lead the U.S. Interior Department. Republican Greg Gianforte, Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks are contesting for the post. Other potential candidates have a lawsuit pending that could throw the timing of the election in doubt.

"I take seriously my responsibility to strengthen our democracy by helping make sure that more eligible citizens can participate in that democracy, not fewer," the governor said in a press conference announcing his action. "And what is better for democracy than to put a ballot in the hands of every registered voter?"

Using his veto pen, Gov. Steve Bullock rewrote an election bill awaiting his signature. The original bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Bryce Bennett of Missoula, mostly addressed mundane election rules such as noticing requirements, clarifying deadlines for local elections.

The governor's amendatory veto inserted an entirely new section into Bennett's 22-page bill, specifying that "the 2017 special election to fill the vacancy in the office of the United States representative for Montana may be conducted by mail."

In addition to signing and vetoing bills, the governor is allowed by state law to issue so-called "amendatory vetoes" to bills he generally supports but will only sign with his suggested changes.

An overwhelming number of country elections officials have been pushing lawmakers to allow the election to be conducted by mail. They argued that it could save them as much as $750,000 and would save them from the logistical nightmares of setting up polling places and hiring workers on such short notice.

It's uncertain what Republican lawmakers can do to prevent a vote on the proposal, which would need simple majorities from both chambers to send the bill back to the governor for his signature. The Senate had already consented to the mail-only ballot, but House Republicans successfully blocked the measure from a floor debate.

Most thought the effort had died last week when the House rejected a bid to revive the bill sponsored by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Great Falls.

County clerks face a Monday deadline to present their election plans to the Secretary of State's Office, but it's unclear what kind of leeway exists in state election laws that would allow them to pursue a mail-only election beyond the current schedules already outlined.

While some counties are already moving forward to conduct elections at the polls, Plettenberg said there could be time for some to switch to mail-only voting.

"If by next week, by some miracle in Helena things get switched to a mail ballot, then I can easily switch," said Plettenberg, the Ravalli County clerk.

 

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