If past midterms are any indication, about half of all Montanans who will vote in this year’s primary election have already cast their ballots.
As of Monday there were more than 743,000 registered voters in Montana, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. Of those, mail ballots had been sent to 471,000, or 63%. Almost 29% of those mail ballots had been returned as of Monday evening, accounting for 18% of all registered voters, with one week left before Election Day.
The primary election is June 7.
Turnout in the last midterm primary election, in 2018, was 41.6% percent among registered Montana voters — the highest midterm turnout since 1994. In 2018, Republican primary voters were choosing a nominee to take on Democratic Sen. Jon Tester in a race that would help determine the balance of the U.S. Senate. During the two decades prior, primary turnout has averaged closer to 30% for the midterms.
One of the biggest changes to Montana’s voting laws since the last federal election is that voters can no longer register to vote on Election Day, or any time after noon on the day before, which is Monday, June 6 this year.
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That doesn’t just apply to new voters. Those who need to change their address to re-register in a new county in Montana also face a cutoff at noon on Monday — although Montana law allows those voters to cast a ballot in their old precinct just once after they move.
The other big change is to the state’s voter identification laws. Under a new law enacted in 2021 and recently restored amid a flurry of legal actions, tighter voter ID requirements will apply to those casting ballots in-person on Election Day.
While a student photo ID from a Montana university was previously sufficient for voters to identify themselves at the polls, those IDs must now be paired with additional documentation that includes the voter’s name and address. Those include utility bills, bank statements, paychecks, vehicle registrations and other official government documents.
Forms of photo ID that don’t require extra paperwork include a Montana driver’s license or state ID, a tribal ID or a concealed-carry permit.
And this year, new election laws aren’t the only source of confusion for voters, according to Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder Eric Semerad.
“The No. 1 thing is that people have forgotten that they’re polling-place voters,” he said. “We haven’t had a polling place election in so long.”
Even those voters who aren’t signed up to get their ballots by mail might not have had to enter a polling place to vote since 2018 or 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many counties to move to all-mail-ballot elections in 2020, and municipal, school and other local elections are often conducted with mail-in ballots in Montana.
“People just forgot, because it’s been so long. They’re just used to getting ballots in the mail,” Semerad said.
Voters in that situation can still visit their local elections office to get a mail-in ballot and either drop if off then or turn it in later. With just a week until Election Day, though, Semerad said voters might want to drop their ballots off at the elections office rather than trusting the Postal Service to deliver them time.
“I would recommend that at this point,” he said. “It’s not too late to put it in the mail, but it’s getting close.”