Judges left in limbo

When Missoula County officials closed eight polling places in January and blamed the cutbacks on a shortage of Election Day staffers, Blake Bentley offered to help.

"They needed judges," Bentley says. "That's why I stepped up."

After successfully completing training, he took time off from his job as a backpack guide in Glacier National Park earlier this month and drove to Missoula two days before the June 8 primaries to ensure he'd be ready to man ballot boxes.

On the Monday before the election, having heard no word from the Missoula County Elections Office, Bentley called for his assignment. County employees then told him they had sufficient staff and likely wouldn't need him.

"I was up there working and I would have stayed up there working," a frustrated Bentley says. "If they would have given me a call a week before or even three days before, I would have been fine with it."

Missoula County Election Administrator Vickie Zeier says that's just the way it works, and her office has never given advance notice to election judges. The protocol gives the Elections Office wiggle room if any judges cancel.

"Honestly, we don't know for sure even until election morning if we're going to need someone," Zeier says.

That may be so. But Bentley wasn't the only judge to air a grievance after not being assigned on June 8.

"We actually got several complaints," says Zeier, who put the exact number at four.

Zeier did explain that part of the issue comes from the difference in staffing a primary election as opposed to a general election. Of the 620 judges the county recruited this year, 300 were called upon to work the primary. Come November, Zeier says she'll likely need roughly 515.

"I don't foresee there will be very many that won't be placed this November," she says.

After hearing concerns from judges like Bentley, Zeier says her office will evaluate the feasibility of providing advance notice. In the meantime, she'll continue reconciling the staff she has with the staff she needs.

"It's sort of like feast or famine," she says.

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