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Elections administrators react to new ballot suit

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HAMILTON, Mont. - The special election to fill Ryan Zinke's congressional seat is generating another controversy.

NBC Montana has told you about the legislative fight over whether it should all be done by mail. Now two minor-party candidates claim Montana's ballot access laws are unconstitutional.

For county elections clerks it's another hurdle in a deadline that's getting tighter every day.

The May 25 special election is only 60 days away.

Elections administrators all over Montana are waiting to see if more names besides the Republican, Democrat and Libertarian candidate appear on the ballot.

"Counties that have already printed are kind of holding right now," said Ravalli County Elections Administrator Regina Plettenberg. "We're in a kind of limbo."

She said about half of Montana's counties have printed.

Gallatin County Elections Administrator Charlotte Mills ordered 86,000 ballots.

Mills said she followed the Secretary of State's guidelines to approve ballots no later than March 24 and sent them to the software vendor that every Montana county uses.

She said the vendor put the orders into a printing schedule so they would be ready by April 4.

Mills said if new ballots have to be printed it could cost Gallatin County $35,000 to $40,000.

In Ravalli County, Plettenberg is holding off until next week to order ballots.

Counties went through a last minute reprint last year when Libertarian candidate Mike Fellows died.

For Ravalli County the price of that reprint was $12,000

"Counties are a little gun shy of additional cost," said Plettenberg.

Missoula County's election administrator said the reprint cost for Missoula was $45,000. It has not yet printed its ballots for the special election.

The administrators are preparing for all possibilities. But with Election Day looming so close every second counts.

As clerks wait to hear whether the election will have polling places or be an all mail-in ballot, they have had to scramble to reserve buildings for polling spots.

For many local entities that's been a challenge, because the election is close to the Memorial Day holiday and graduations, so many buildings often used for elections aren't available.

Plettenberg said it's been tough year on counties, both financially and in resources. She said many elections administrators are also clerk and recorders, who at this point in the year are in the middle of getting their budgets ready for their entire county.

She said it's the "midnight hour" and elections administrators are hoping that whatever decisions are made on this special election they are made quickly.

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