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Hill County Commission reverses decision on mail-in ballots


Last updated 8/21/2020 at 11:52am

Havre Daily News/Colin Thompson

Hill County Commission Administrative Assistant Brittany Pfiefer, back, from left, takes notes for commissioners Mike Wendland, Diane McLean and Mark Peterson during the commission's weekly business meeting.

The Hill County Commission, in an extended meeting Thursday voted 2-1 to adopt a resolution to allow mail-in ballots for the upcoming 2020 General Election in November, with Hill County Commissioners Mike Wendland and Mark Peterson voting yes and Hill County Commissioner Diane McLean voting no.

Thursday of last week during at the commissioner's weekly business meeting, the same resolution was brought before the commission and was voted down with Wendland voting yes and Peterson and McLean voting no.

In-person voting will be available Oct. 2, with mail ballots being mailed out Oct. 9. Voters can bring their mail ballots to use to vote in person or use ballots provided by the county if they go before Oct. 9.

The commissioner's, at their weekly business meeting Thursday invited members of the public to express their opinions on matter of mail-in ballots with people attending in-person on via GoToMeeting.

Due to the amount of people attending the business meeting, Peterson asked people to do their best to keep their remarks to about two minutes each.

Before the public comments, he called on Hill County Clerk and Recorder Sue Armstrong to speak.

Armstrong said she hopes the commission would reconsider their decision at last week's business meeting and again pushed back on what she said is the most common argument she sees against allowing mail-in ballots, fraud, which she said, is not a problem in Hill County.

"There has never been fraud in Hill County," she said.

Armstrong also restated her concern that her office will not be able to find enough election judges for the election.

This morning Wendland said Armstrong deserves a great deal of recognition for her efforts as well being that she ultimately oversees the election as the county's clerk and recorder.

Armstrong's concerns were echoed Thursday by Deputy Election Administrator Kaci Hipple.

"With the poll election, I don't know how we're going to do it with so few workers willing to follow guidelines," Hipple said.

She also took issue with a common saying she said she sees used to argue against allowing mail-in ballots.

"I see a comment often that says 'If you can go to Walmart you can go to the polls,'" she said, "Well, Walmart has policies that their employees follow that they were face masks, if they didn't have those employees willing to wear those face masks. ... If they didn't have enough employees, you would be standing in line for hours on end trying to get the necessities to feed your family."

Armstrong also said, based on her understanding, Hill County Attorney Karen Alley's legal opinion, election judges are required to wear face masks, or they cannot work at the polls.

She also said if anyone has questions or concerns about how the election works she's happy to walk them through the process and explain everything to them.

On GoToMeeting, Carol Bangs said she has been an election official for 30 years and she doesn't think it would be safe to have people staffing polls for the 14-hour shifts typical of election day.

She said she thinks Hill County has proven itself prepared to handle a mail-in election with efficiency where other places in the U.S. may not.

"We're not New York City, we are Hill County and I think trust is well-placed in all of our officials," she said.

Bear Paw Credit Union Vice-president Gerry Veis said, based on the numbers he's been provided by the Hill County Clerk and Recorder's Office, the commission's decision against allowing mail-in ballots doesn't make sense to him.

He said they clearly show that mail-in ballots will increase the amount of people participating, in addition to saving the county a considerable amount of money.

"It's gonna save the county $28,500 ... and the fact that you wouldn't want to do that doesn't make any sense to me," he said.

Veis also said if he spread COVID-19 to somebody as a result of going to the polls, and they got seriously hurt or died, he doesn't know how he would deal with that and making it easier for people to not have to come to the polls is the right thing to do not just in this election cycle, but in all of them.

"I honestly believe you should vote for, not just the mail-in vote this year, but I think you should do it for the future, forever and ever and be done with it," he said.

Courtney Tait said he was especially concerned with the effects the lack of mail-in ballots may have on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation given its recent lockdown.

"I have a freight business and I have a hard time getting freight delivered to anyone out there," he said.

Tait said he thinks not providing mail-in ballots will have severe impacts on the ability of people on the reservation to vote given the uncertain future of the virus.

"They've got a very high voting percentage in most elections out there, and if you give them mail ballots you're going to get that again," he said, "but if you don't the polling out there is going to be way down. Maybe some people think that's a good thing, but I don't think so."

Raela Hulett said she hopes the commission will listen to people concerned about their health, and believes that the confusion caused by last minute poll location changes, which Armstrong said are a serious possibility without an option for mail-in ballots, would be far more confusing than providing absentee ballots.

She also took issue with the Walmart analogy.

"I think there are a lot of people in this community who are not shopping, they are having things delivered to them," she said.

Hulett said she believes not allowing a mail-in ballot under the current circumstances could be considered voter suppression and took issue with the idea that voting shouldn't be made easier.

"Whose job as a commissioner is to make things difficult for your constituents," she asked rhetorically.

Dennis Kuntz said he suspects voter suppression is a goal in some cases where mail-in ballots are being voted against, and said while voter fraud is not quite nonexistent, the percentage of fraudulent votes is extraordinarily low.

Pam Harada, who also attended last week's business meeting, again strongly disagreed with the idea that disallowing mail-in ballots would be voter suppression intentional or otherwise.

"My goodness, we've been voting by polls and absentee ballots for years I didn't think that was voter suppression," she said.

She said she also believe that fraud is much more widespread than people may know.

"I'd say those are the ones who've been caught," Harada said.

She also took issue with the general tone of those who objected to the commission's original decision.

"It sounds like the lynch mob at the jailhouse door spurred on by agitators and incomplete and inaccurate information in the news media," she said, "... I would have thought in Montana, and especially in Havre, that we could disagree without demonizing each other."

Peterson thanked everyone who came in and called in and said he wasn't sure if another vote would be called, but he reserved the right to make a motion to re-open the meeting if he saw fit to change his vote.

The meeting was adjourned just before noon, but later in the afternoon, Peterson made a motion to re-open the meeting around 2:20 p.m. When that meeting started, he made a motion to re-open last week's resolution for another vote.

McLean seconded both of the motions.

Wendland raised concerns about the irregularity of the way the matter was being handled, with the commission reconvening the meeting reconvened the same day without notice to the public.

"What we did was very highly out of order," he said.

Peterson said he'd gotten the OK on the meeting being re-opened by Karen Alley and that the discussion had been listed on the weekly agenda since Monday.

Alley had not responded to a request for comment by printing deadline this morning.

Peterson said during the Thursday afternoon meeting he still believes based on the responses he's had over the last week that a strong majority of residents of Hill County do not want a mail-in ballot.

Peterson said while many of the interactions he's had with community members have been pleasant and illuminating, he lamented the lack of knowledge displayed by some of them with regards to what is actually involved in running an election.

"One thing I've found in this deal, there's a hell of a lot of people out there who know (expletive) about elections ... I mean they don't, they are so naïve," he said.

He said that after considering information provided to him by the Hill County Clerk and Recorder's Office, particularly Hipple, he changed his mind about the matter.

He said the potential issues with Rocky Boy, the potential savings to the county, and the health of the public and the county employees contributed to his decision.

"I'm probably going to have people on both sides of the fence mad at me, but I think it's the right thing to do," he said.

Peterson also said this change had nothing to do with petition recently created by State Rep. D-Havre Jacob Bachmeier.

He said he considers Bachmeier's statement that if he and McLean didn't change their votes, they should be the first to sign-up as election judges and that Bachmeier would consider starting a social media campaign further calling out the commission for their vote, threats.

"Those are the kind of threats that I don't take very kindly too, and Mr. Bachmeier needs to grow up," Peterson said.

Bachmeier said in an article printed Monday in The Havre Daily News that if the commissioners are going to force election judges to work the polls, they should be the first to sign up as judges.

When asked for comment about Peterson's remarks Thursday, Bachmeier said he's ultimately happy the commission decided to reconsider.

"I would like to thank the county commissioners for changing their vote to go to an all-mail ballot," he said. "I think it was the right thing to do ... I want thank them for increasing access to democracy."

Bachmeier said the county needs to put the health and safety of the public and election workers first during this pandemic. However, he said he wouldn't directly respond to Peterson's comments.

"I'm not going to respond to petty remarks," he said.

"In the end we have to keep in mind that this isn't about Mark and I and our personal feelings aren't really what matter here. This is about what's best for Hill County as a whole, especially the most vulnerable," he added.

After the vote Thursday, McLean said there's only one county in Montana with greater than one percent of its population who've had the virus.

"Yellowstone has 654 active cases, but their percent active is only 0.41 percent of the population in the county, let that sink in," she said.

"I'm sure there will be more 'shame on you Diane McLean,' in the newspaper too," she added before leaving.

Hill County has reported new cases Wednesday and Thursday and now is up to 50 cases, five active and 43 recovered with three deaths.

Peterson said despite their difference of opinion he respects her and her opinion says they have an excellent working relationship, and that no one feels forced to make the decisions they make.

"We try very hard to make this office function in a way that is good for the community," he said.

Peterson said he knows this decision will make people upset, but he feels that it's the right thing to do.

"I'm in a no-win situation, but I didn't sign up for this job to be the most liked guy in the world," he said.

Peterson also praised Hipple for answering his questions and giving him guidance on this issue.

Hipple said she would keep the public as informed and up-to-date as humanly possible through the media.

"I want this election to work and I feel my staff in the office is ready for it," she said.

Wendland said he wants people to know just how much effort employees at the Clerk and Recorder's Office go through to make sure voters get their ballots.

"I know this from the past, if you get a ballot back that was undeliverable, you did everything in your power to find those people," he said, "... People don't know that, they don't see how far you went out of your way."

Hipple said the process takes time but they do the best they can and really get it done.

During Thursday morning's meeting the commission unanimously re-authorized a local option vehicle tax of 5 percent for the funding of general government, which Wendland said, is needed to maintain current services the county provides.

The resolution says the county portion will be split with 75 percent going to the general fund, and 25 percent going to the insurance fund.

They also unanimously approved a construction maintenance agreement on Boulevard Avenue construction design provided by the Montana Department of Transportation.

Peterson said they've been re-approving the project for the past three years but it hasn't been able to start due to a lack of grant funding.


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