Corey Stapleton, Montana's chief election official, urged lawmakers to think twice about an all-mail-in ballot. Pictured: Voters deliver ballots at the drive-through ballot drop-off outside the Denver Elections Division in downtown Denver in November 2012. (Denver Post file)

Montana Secretary of State opposes mail-in ballot system, warns it could lead to “all-marijuana all-the-time”

HELENA, Mont. — Montana’s secretary of state and the chairman of the state Republican party oppose a mail-in ballot for an expected special election to replace U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, saying that while it would save counties money it would give Democrats an advantage.

In an email to party members, GOP chairman and state Rep. Jeff Essman of Billings this week warned Republicans that Democrats have an “inherent advantage” in mail-only elections “due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door.”

The email drew criticism suggesting it smacked of a Republican effort at voter suppression.

Senate Bill 305, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls, would set a one-time exception to hold a mail-only ballot to fill Zinke’s seat if the Republican is confirmed as Interior Secretary. The Senate State Administration Committee voted 6-2 Wednesday in support of the bill. It now goes to the full Senate for consideration.

The bill was requested by the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders.

Fitzpatrick estimated counties would save a total of $500,000 by using mail ballots for the special election rather than having to secure polling sites and hire election judges on short notice.

“This is an election that comes at an unusual time. I don’t think people anticipate voting at this time. I think it’s very likely people may forget,” Fitzpatrick said. “I think that since we are electing our congressman, somebody who represents all of us, I think it’s important that we have as much of a chance as we can to get people out to vote as well.”

Essman acknowledged his position would not be popular with fiscally conservative county commissioners.

“They may be well intended, but this bill could be the death of our effort to make Montana a reliably Republican state,” Essman wrote.

Corey Stapleton, the state’s chief election official, told Republican lawmakers that they were the protectors of the Republican form of government and urged them to think twice about an all-mail-in ballot.

“If you look at the three states that have done it, you can see that populism and direct democracy at its best,” said Stapleton, who is a Republican. “All three states — Oregon, Washington and Colorado — they do all-mail-in ballots and they’re all-marijuana all-the-time states too. Is that what you want? Because that’s what you’re going to get.”

Essman, in his email, predicted that a mail-in ballot could increase the turnout of “low-propensity voters,” which would be advantageous to Democrats.

Pondera County Commissioner Janice Hoppes, a Republican, wanted to know: “Just what exactly is a ‘lower-propensity voter?’

“This statement further underscores the bad rap Republicans get about voter suppression,” Hoppes said.

During a hearing on the bill on Monday, Rep. Sharon Stewart-Peregoy, D-Crow Agency, said the bill would suppress the Native American vote after tribes fought to get satellite polling offices.

Fitzpatrick said the bill was amended to ensure any settlement with tribes involving the Voting Rights Act would be honored.