Late surge, long lines and a midterm record in Missoula County

The last few dozen voters mark the end of the line on Tuesday evening outside the Missoula County elections center. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In the 14 years Rocky Allen has served as an election observer in Missoula County, she’d never seen crowds like those that filled the fairgrounds on Tuesday.

That was her take on turnout early in the morning and by 8 p.m., when the doors closed and the last voter had registered, Missoula County had set a new midterm election record.

“We actually processed 1,320 new voters for this county,” Missoula County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby said just before 9 p.m. “And they’re still processing through. In 2016, it was just over 1,400 new voters, so we’ve hit a presidential turnout for Missoula County.”

As of 9 p.m., 47,000 absentee ballots had been returned, or roughly 77 percent of those issued. More than 6,500 people had voted at one of the county’s 26 polling stations.

That strong turnout in Missoula County helped propel Sen. Jon Tester to an early statewide lead. In Missoula County, he’d taken 70 percent of the vote compared to challenger Matt Rosendale’s 28 percent.

Kathleen Williams was also running strong in the county, taking 67 percent of the vote to Rep. Greg Gianforte’s 31 percent. Several voters used their ballot as a referendum on President Donald Trump.

“I think (Trump) is making you want to go vote,” said Ashley Skartved, a college-age voter. “I think Tester and Rosendale and the open space bond, health care, all those things that are important to our age group, are motivating factors. I’m personally voting for Tester. Everyone we know, we’re trying to get them to vote.”

Election officials tabulate ballots at the Missoula County elections center around 9 p.m. on Tuesday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

An hour before polls closed on Tuesday night, more than 100 voters stood in line outside the registration center. The line moved quickly and by 8 p.m., the remaining voters were brought into the building when doors were closed behind them.

Among the last in line was Carissa Heavy Runner and her daughter, Mika Westfolf, who turned 18 and was registering to vote for the first time. She had a good idea who she planned to vote for, along with the issues that aligned with her politics.

“It’s important for my people and for my future,” said Westwolf. “I’m kind of nervous.”

Heavy Runner, the daughter of former legislator George Heavy Runner, said this year’s election carried implications. It was important enough to stand in the cold waiting to register her daughter.

“I’m thinking of my grandchildren, and my grandchildren’s children,” said Heavy Runner. “Coming from a sovereign people, it’s important to vote. Even if you think you’re not making an impact, being one little person marking an oval, you are. In numbers it matters. We have a chance to change the world we live in.”

The turnout in Missoula County also pushed several closely watched issues to the forefront, including the open space bond. Countywide voters had given it an early lead, backing the measure by a 61 to 39 percent margin as of 10 p.m.

City voters also appeared willing to pass the associated stewardship levy, which held a 63 to 37 percent lead.

While both issues helped bring voters to the polls, it was the statewide congressional races that had most voters talking. Statewide campaigns kept a close watch on Missoula County to see if Tester and Williams would run strong enough to counter votes elsewhere in the state.

“It’s a pretty contentious election – it decides who’s going to control the Senate and House, and it’s the reason I came down,” said Dylan Berget. “I worked in D.C. for a little while for Steve Daines and I like Steve Daines, although I also like Tester a lot. I’ve heard a lot on campus that people are trying to get out and vote. There’s been a lot of advocacy to get out and vote.”