Senate approves mail-only ballots to elect Zinke’s replacement

Republicans have been split on the issue of mail-in ballots, with some saying they’ll save time and money and others, including party Chairman Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, who say they will give Democrats an advantage. (Reuters photo)

By Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA – A controversial bill that would allow counties in Montana to choose an all mail-in ballot in the special election to replace Congressman Ryan Zinke passed the Senate on a 37-13 vote Friday.

The measure faces one final vote in the Senate, then will go to the House for consideration.

Republicans have been split on the issue of mail-in ballots, with some saying they’ll save time and money and others, including party Chairman Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, who say they will give Democrats an advantage.

Sen. Jon Sesso, D-Butte, supported Senate Bill 305 and said mail-in ballots have been discussed since he’s been in the legislature.

“Let’s give it a try one time. There’s nothing in this law that says permanent,” Sesso said. “Let’s see how it works.”

Sesso said this is a great opportunity to see how an all mail-in ballot election would work in the state.

Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse, opposed the bill and said not everyone trusts the post office.

“It doesn’t allow the people in my district who don’t want to vote absentee, who don’t want to vote by mail,” Brown said.

During floor debate on the bill, Sen. Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville, said all Montanans should be voting the same way.

“I think that’s simply straight forward. We ought to know how that’s going to happen and not make special ways for anybody, unless there’s some prevailing reason,” Thomas said. “

Democratic Sen. Diane Sands says she’s worked polling places for the last decade. She responded to Thomas’ statement.

“We make all kinds of accommodations for special needs of our voters to make sure to the widest degree possible, that all people can vote,” Sands said.

Zinke will vacate his House seat in the near future, once his nomination as Interior secretary is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. He was nominated to the post by President Donald Trump. Once Zinke resigns, Gov. Steve Bullock will call for the special vote.

Freddy Monares is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.