Law restricts who can collect mail-in ballots

Joseph Bullington --
Tuesday, April 9, 2019
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Voters arrive at the polling station in the Park County Fairgrounds, Nov. 6.

The next time Park County voters swing by the election office to drop off a voted ballot for a friend or family member, they’ll notice something new — they’re required to file a form with the Ballot Collection Registry.

The registry is the result of a new election law, known as the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act, designed to restrict who can deliver mail-in ballots to a polling place.

The act appeared on the ballot in the 2018 election as Legislative Referendum 129, and when it was approved by Montana voters — including Park County voters, who supported it by a margin of 24 percent — it complicated things for county clerk and recorders, who administer elections.

On the one hand, the new law prohibits anyone except a family member, household member, acquaintance or caregiver from collecting and returning another person’s voted or unvoted ballot. And, assuming the ballot collector falls into one of those categories, he or she can legally collect and return only up to six ballots per election.

On the other hand, the law gives clerk and recorders few tools by which to enforce it.

According to Park County Clerk and Recorder Maritza Reddington, her office cannot request ID to verify that a person has one of the permitted relationships to the voter, and they cannot reject a ballot on the grounds that it was submitted in violation of this law.

Instead, alongside the instructions sent out with mail-in ballots, Reddington’s office will also send out a Ballot Collection Registration form, asking ballot collectors to fill out their name, address, phone number and their relationship to the person whose ballot they are collecting.

“You’re kind of entrusting it to the person doing the collection,” Reddington said of the law. “You’re basically leaving it in their hands to follow the rules.”

If election administrators suspect violations, Reddington said, they can notify the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, who is charged with investigating violations. A person found guilty of violating the law can be fined up to $500 for each ballot unlawfully collected.

Voter fraud problem?

Reddington said that, in her time as clerk and recorder, she has not had much trouble with people collecting piles of other people’s ballots and turning them in.

In Montana, anyone can request to vote by mail-in ballot, which is filled out, sealed in a secrecy envelope, signed and then sent in by mail or simply dropped in the collection box at the election office. In fact, most people in Park County choose to vote by mail-in ballot — in the 2016 general election, 54 percent of residents voted that way, while 64 percent voted that way in the 2018 primaries.

In Reddington’s experience, it’s not unusual for people to turn in ballots for other people.

“The norm is a husband and wife, a family member,” she said of who she usually sees returning ballots that are not their own.

She can think of one exception. In 2016, her office received several complaints about a group that was going door to door collecting mailin ballots in the two weeks leading up to the election.

In general, though, she said, “we don’t see stacks and stacks of ballots that have been brought in.”

“The people voted for it,” Reddington went on, “so they felt it was necessary. But I don’t expect it to affect our process much.”

The ballot collection box will still sit unguarded out front of the Clerk and Recorder’s Office in the City-County Complex, she said.

The law went into effect immediately upon passage and Ballot Collection Registry forms will be sent out with mail-in ballots for the upcoming May 7 Livingston school election and the June 11 Livingston ambulance mill levy election.