In a bid to increase local voter turnout, Missoula’s City Council endorsed a proposal to change the 2007 city elections from traditional polling places to mail-in ballots, despite one representative’s protestations that the move will encourage more uninformed voting.
Missoula County Elections Administrator Vickie Zeier believes the shift will increase the standard paltry turnout of 8 percent to 15 percent for municipal elections to more than 50 percent. That’s what happened in Oregon when elections statewide were switched to a mail-in ballot system in 1998.
Under the plan Council approved April 16, elections officials will mail out ballots to Missoulians 21 days prior to the primary (if required) and general elections. Voters can then return their ballots by mail—it’s not yet decided whether the city or voters will be responsible for postage—or drop them off at a handful of official drop-off spots. The authenticity of ballots will be verified using voters’ signatures, a method already in place for absentee ballots, and prospective voters can still utilize Montana’s new provisions for Election Day registration at the County Courthouse.
All in all, Zeier says, mail-in ballots will cost about the same, be less complicated to run and provide more fraud controls. However, the biggest advantage cited by Zeier, Council members and the handful of citizens who spoke in favor of the idea is the expected boom in voter turnout.
But Ward 2’s Don Nicholson, the lone member opposed to mail-in ballots, warned, “the additional people we bring in to vote will be less informed.”
That concern was roundly rejected by other representatives, including Ward 1’s Dave Strohmaier, who called Nicholson’s reasoning “an extremely weak argument.”
“It has always bothered me that 8 to 12 percent of citizens could decide bond issues for the entire population,” said Ward 3’s Stacy Rye, who also spoke strongly against Nicholson. “If we give people a chance to be interested and learn about the election, I think they’ll rise to the occasion.”
Seconded Ward 5’s Jack Reidy: “The more the merrier.”