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Special election process stalled due to pending legislation, lawsuit

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MISSOULA, Mont. - Counties across Montana are trying to figure out how to finance the special election on May 25 to replace former Rep. Ryan Zinke. Zinke was nominated to President Trump's cabinet as the Secretary of Interior in February.

County elections officials proposed Senate Bill 305, which would allow counties to decide if they want to hold an all-vote-by-mail election, but there's much debate.

Missoula County Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors says an all-vote-by-mail election would save Missoula County around $130,000. She says the bill would help smaller counties with tighter budgets and smaller elections staff. Bill opponents argue the bill would make voting less accessible because not everyone has access to a mailing address.

While the bill awaits approval in the House Judiciary Committee before making it to the House floor for a vote, Montana elections offices are faced with a new challenge that could cost counties thousands more dollars.

Thomas and Danielle Breck and Steve Kelly -- potential candidates with the Montana Green Party and Independent Party -- filed a lawsuit with Secretary of State Corey Stapleton's office Wednesday to get their names on the special election ballot.

The trio is challenging Montana's ballot access laws for independent and minor party candidates. Danielle Breck argues the three did not have enough time to collect the required 14,000 signatures to get their names on the ballot given the special election deadlines.

Independent and minor party candidates need to collect 5 percent of the total votes cast at the last general election for the successful candidate for the office being sought, according to Montana state law.

"We were left with a situation where Montana law would have required independent and minor party candidates to collect more than 14,000 signatures in a matter of five or six days -- less than a week," Breck said. "That's just clearly untenable in a state as wide and as big as Montana, so we didn't feel like we had fair access to the ballot."

Breck says the Green Party was able to attain the required number of signatures for the November election to place Jill Stein on the ballot as a presidential candidate.

However, the lawsuit is holding up counties from moving forward with the special election process and creating a potential financial crisis. The Secretary of State's office says 39 of Montana's 56 counties have already printed their ballots, and the outcome of the lawsuit could mean those counties would have to reprint those ballots in an already financially taxing year.

Flathead, Sanders and Gallatin counties are among those that have already printed their ballots.

Gallatin County Elections Administrator Charlotte Mills says up to $35,000 worth of ballots arrived at the county elections office Monday morning. She says it would cost upwards of $45,000 to reprint the ballots if the judge decides the suing parties names should be added.

Missoula, Ravalli and Mineral counties have not yet printed their ballots. They say they are waiting for the judge's decision to print ballots.

"After last fall, with the death of a candidate and having the ballot challenged, we just know to expect the unexpected. At the end of the day the voter must receive the corrected ballot," Connors said.

Missoula resident Geoff Badenoch says the extenuating circumstances surrounding elections in the 2016-17 budget year are "like a triple whammy for the elections office."

But Mills says the process is not that simple.

"People aren't understanding that there was a timeline issued by the Secretary of State's office with deadlines that we had to meet. (We had deadlines) of when we were supposed to have our ballots in," Mills said.

Connors says other elections deadlines are approaching fast, and they would like to see a decision not only on the lawsuit, but also on SB 305.

"We have to send out military, both domestic and foreign, as well as foreign civilians by April 10. That's 45 days before the election," Connors added. "If there are any changes to the ballot we would be required to send them a corrected ballot."

Connors says the latest Missoula County will wait to hear any decisions is April 6. That's when she says they will print ballots regardless of whether decisions are made on the lawsuit and the bill.

"We will move forward with the certified ballot from the Secretary of State," she added.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris will hear the lawsuit in Great Falls on Tuesday, April 4 at 3 p.m.

SB 305 is currently sitting in the House Judiciary Committee. The committee will have to approve the bill before it moves to the House floor for a vote. The bill passed the Senate in a 37-13 vote. Connors says Gov. Steve Bullock must sign the bill by April 10.

Connors says the Missoula County Elections Office will move its headquarters to the Missoula County Fairgrounds for the special election starting April 5. Connors says anyone wishing to change their election information should go to the fairgrounds instead of the elections office at the Missoula County Courthouse.

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