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Montana and Vote-By-Mail: Change Coming Slowly - but Coming Nonetheless

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[Image courtesy of city-data]

Friday's Great Falls (MT) Tribune had a great piece on Montana's slow evolution toward vote-by-mail.

There isn't necessarily a whole lot of news in the piece for someone who follows elections across the nation, but I thought the article was terrific in how well it captured the nature - and pace - of change in elections.

Recent headlines have all been about struggles in states where legislatures have made significant and rapid changes to election procedures. As I've discussed here in many different posts, such change is a natural offshoot of the different policy views of the parties combined with change in legislative control due to elections.

Montana is a reminder, however, that sometimes change comes more slowly - and, sometimes, independently of legislation. Montana considered mandating a switch to vote by mail in 2011 but the proposal died in the legislature.

Nevertheless, many Big Sky State communities are increasingly relying upon vote-by-mail because of the cost savings inherent in not siting and staffing polling places. Consider the following data from a sidebar in the Tribune article:

In 2000, only 15 percent of Montanans voted absentee in the general election. That meant they would be traveling on Election Day; had a good reason they could not vote in person, such as being disabled; or they simply did not feel like going out to vote on the day of the election. That latter reason became acceptable when the 1999 Montana Legislature approved "no-excuse" voting.

Absentee voting grew in popularity, with 22 percent of Montanans voting absentee in the 2004 general election, according to Montana's secretary of state.
Then, in 2005, the Legislature agreed to allow Montanans to become permanent absentee voters if they chose.

In 2006, absentee voting in the general election rose to 29.17 percent; in 2008, to 42.21 percent; and in 2010, 47.15 percent of the 367,010 votes cast came by absentee ballot.
One historic vote for Montana came in the June 2010 primary, when 54.26 percent of all votes, or 112,204 Montanans, voted using an absentee ballot.

The Nov. 6 general election could be the first time a majority of Montanans vote absentee in a general election. Most absentee votes these days are cast by mail.

This kind of change - where widespread voter acceptance predates legislative adoption, if any - is the other side of the fierce battles over election policy that we're seeing across the nation. Neither way is necessarily better - sometimes dramatic changes might be the only way to address a pressing concern - but Montana's experience assures us that sometimes it's the voters (and not legislators) who lead the way to change.

1 Comment


  • Hey, jump in! The water's fine! Our voters in Washington and Oregon are very happy with all vote-by-mail, except for some who miss the civic ceremony of going to the polls, or somehow worry that this system is, per se, more suspectible to fraud. We haven't seen evidence of the latter, and we suggest to people who miss the ceremony that they make a new family tradition of making voting something they talk about together as a family -- parental civics education, if you will, about how you use print and electronic voter information, how you decide whom you like best, etc.

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