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County administrators gear up for special election after Zinke confirmed

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MISSOULA, Mont. - Gov. Steve Bullock announced Wednesday the special election to fill Ryan Zinke's U.S. House seat will be held May 25.

The U.S. Senate confirmed Zinke as the Secretary of Interior in President Donald Trump's cabinet Wednesday. Zinke submitted his resignation as a Montana representative hours later.

Elections offices across the state are preparing to hold a special election to replace Zinke. Missoula County Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors says the process could be extensive.

"A special election like this is fairly unprecedented for Montana, so a lot of the elections administrators are all in the same boat of trying to coordinate on such short notice and make sure that we're ready for a federal election," Connors said.

She says elections take at minimum five months to coordinate, but as of March 1 they only have about three.

Connors says the first step to hold a special election is coordinating with polling locations.

"There (will be) a lot of challenges. Many of the local schools are holding graduation that day," Connors said. She said the county also must consider budget, staffing and training for elections administrators and volunteers.

"The biggest problem for our office is this is not a budgeted election, and I only have the funds left to conduct a school election," Connors said.

She's supporting Senate Bill 305 currently in the Montana legislature, awaiting approval in the House. If passed, the bill would mean a mail-in ballot election.

Connors says taking votes by mail only would save the county thousands of dollars. She says the county's general fund pays for local elections, and a special election could strain other county resources that draw from the fund.

"It's on the back of the county and local taxpayers," Connors added.

State Sen. Bob Keenan (R-Bigfork) voted no on the bill and feels the public should still have the option to go to a physical polling place.

"I have to say that voting is the foundation of our representative government, and if there's anything we can afford to do it's to have elections," Keenan added.

Missoula resident Mary Kelly likes the option to research and vote at home.

"There's some concern about (absentee elections) being skewed, but I just don't see how that would work," Kelly said.

Resident Keon Gallagher sees the need to have both options for absentee and physical polling locations.

"It seems like a lot of polling people tend to vote by mail, but also go to the polling places. I think both are just as equally important," he added.

Connors expects special election ballots to go out May 1, regardless of method.

Read the full Senate bill here.

Connors also wants to remind the public that local school elections are held in May, and voters will receive separate ballots.

Montana Democrats announced they will hold their special election nominating convention Sunday.

The Montana Republican Party will hold theirs next week.

Greg Gianforte, who ran against Steve Bullock for governor in the 2016 election, announced his intent to run for the House seat Wednesday. Six other Republicans and eight Democrats have also announced plans to run.

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