Hill County to Hold Mail-In Ballot Election after Course Reversal

HAVRE, Mont. (NMB) – The Hill County Commissioners have reversed course and decided to hold the 2020 General Election via mail-in ballot, with the additional option to vote in-person.

The vote was cast at Thursday’s Weekly Commissioner Business meeting, which reconvened in the afternoon after hearing public comments on the proposal in the morning.

The vote was 2-1. Mike Wendland and Mark Peterson voted in favor, while Diane McLean voted against the proposal.

10 members of the public provided public comment at the meeting, nine of which were in favor of holding a mail-in election. Those in favor included County Attorney Karen Alley and former Havre City Council member Gerry Veis.

At the outset of the meeting, Clerk and Recorder Susan Armstrong and Deputy Election Administrator Kaci Hipple provided statements in support of holding a mail-in election.

“I’m not looking at politics. Most of the complaints (of mail elections) are fraud,” Armstrong said. “There has never been fraud in Hill County and I don’t think there’s been fraud in the state of Montana that anybody’s ever come out and said. Even the people that have voted against this have nothing but respect for our office, and I would like people to go by that, and I would like the Commissioner’s to go off of that, to respect my office for the dedication and expertise that we do for the elections, that we do know what we’re asking for. I do have employees out there, three of the five do have small kids, it will be very hard for them during this COVID time because they also help teaching kids due to schools (not being fully reopened). And I know around town, lots of businesses are closed more certain days, because they don’t have enough employees. And that’s what we’re concerned about, not getting enough judges. We probably only have 45 judges that we know of, and that’s not even 100 percent, because some of them will not wear masks. I’m with the understanding through the County Attorney that we have to go by the Governor Directive and their suggestions.”

“I see a lot that people compare, if you can go to Wal-Mart, you can go to polls. Well, if Wal-Mart has policies their employees have to follow to have them wearing  facemasks,” Hipple added. “If they didn’t have those employees willing to wear those face-masks, I’m sure Wal-Mart wouldn’t be open for people to go to. So we have to thank those employees willing to follow those rules to keep it open for us to go. If they didn’t have enough employees, you would be standing in line for hours on end to try and get the necessities to feed your family I look at that the same way we have a poll. We have to have the workers to be able to have polls open. We have to have the workers able, willing and capable to wear the face-masks and (follow) the guidelines that the Governor and Election Administrators are going to put in place to be able to securely run this election. And with a poll election, I don’t know how we’re going to do it with so few workers willing to follow guidelines.”

A resolution to conduct the General Election by mail-in ballot was voted down last week 2-1, with Peterson having voted against the proposal. Before that vote, he had called for the resolution to be tabled in order to allow more time for public comment, but the motion was not seconded.

This led to the resolution being reconsidered on Thursday and approved following Peterson’s decision to change his vote.

There were questions about whether it was proper procedure to be able to revive a resolution that had been voted down. Wendland said he believed Peterson was conducting business out of order, but Peterson said proper public notice was provided and the County Attorney cleared it with him.

In changing his vote, Peterson cited the need to make sure voters on the Rocky Boy Reservation are able to cast their ballot, the need to protect the health and well being of residents, and cost savings associated with holding a mail-in election, such as not needing to hire election judges.

“I really truly believe by my contacts out there that there is a very strong majority of voters that are not in favor of the mail ballot. So it’s extremely difficult for me to do some of the things that I do. But I try and listen to the people as best I can. And also try and look at other things. When I was not able to table the motion last week, so that I could hear the people, we went through the process we went through today. And there were a lot of people that spoke here today that were pro-mail ballot. But I’ve talked to a lot of the pro-mail ballot people that say people around them are really against the mail ballot. So I’m probably going to have people on both sides of the fence mad at me, but I think it’s the right thing to do.”

Peterson wanted to reiterate that the County Commissioners continue to have a good working relationship despite policy disagreements that sometimes arise.

He also lauded Deputy Election Administrator Kaci Hipple for being forthright and answering all questions he had.

A rough estimate of $28,500 in cost savings associated with holding a mail-in ballot election was provided by Hipple at the meeting.

Peterson said that Democratic State Representative Jacob Bachmeier’s petition had no influence on his decision, and shamed him for what he preceived as threats.

“If you look at the email that he sent out, he said if I didn’t change my vote, he was going to the community…social media, and start a campaign. And that he also stated that both Mark (Peterson) and Diane (McLean) better sign up to be (election) judges. And I don’t know if it’s good for an election official to be a judge. And those are kind of threats that I don’t take very kindly, and Mr. Bachmeier needs to grow up.”

Bachmeier told New Media Broadcasters following the meeting that he appreciated Peterson’s change of heart, but was disheartened by the personal attack.

“I just want to thank Mark Peterson and Mike Wendland for supporting the all-mail ballot election. I think it’s really important that we put the safety of the election judges and the public first. As far as those comments about me needing to grow up, I’m not going to personally respond to petty comments. As far as his concerns about my comments on doing a social media campaign, that’s part of serving in politics. If you don’t do what the public wants you to, then you get held accountable. When you’re an elected official, you should expect to be held accountable for your actions. In the words of Mike Huckabee, a former Republican Governor, ‘politics is a blood sport, and if you can’t handle it, you need to get out.’ I am just astonished by his comments and how unprofessional they are. Like I said, if you don’t listen to what the public has to offer you, you’re not doing your job. You should be expected to be held accountable.”

All active registered voters in Hill County will have a ballot mailed to them on October 9th. Voters will also have the option of casting their ballot in-person at the County Courthouse starting on October 2nd.

This story has been updated to include a response from Jacob Bachmeier

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