Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The Missoula County Elections Office last week gave a newly minted election law a dry run in anticipation of next year’s sweeping federal election, when nearly every statewide race is up for grabs, along with the presidency.

An act revising the procedure “for the counting of votes,” adopted by the 2023 Legislature, includes a provision that in any election that has at least one statewide race or a statewide ballot issue, election officials must provide the results first to the Secretary of State’s office before giving them to local media.

“It pushes all election results to the Secretary of State’s website before being handed out to the media,” said Missoula County elections administrator Bradly Seaman. “It’s in every race in a federal election year.”

In years past, local media often gathered at the county Elections Office just before 8 p.m. Once polls closed, election officials typically provided reporters a print-out of the first batch of ballot results. With all-mail elections, that first batch of returns is large and it often provides a picture of the evening’s election results.

The process gave local media a head start on reporting the first batch of returns. Now, however, those returns must first go the Secretary of State’s office before the media receives them.

Seaman said the Missoula County Elections Office gave the new procedure a dry run this month during the municipal election. In doing so, election officials waited until shortly after 8 p.m. to confirm that all voters had finished voting before releasing the results.

The process would be similar in years when statewide races or statewide initiatives are on the ballot, Seaman said.

“We’ve mirrored it to what we would do next year, just to be prepared. We checked in with our drop locations to ensure all voters had finished voting. When all those voters had completed, then we released those results. We had them here and we had them ready. It’s exactly what we would do next year.”

House Bill 196, introduced by Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, was adopted by the 2023 Legislature. Among other things, it requires that county election workers complete their ballot counts, or tabulation, “without adjournment.”

Once tabulation has been completed, the results must be publicly declared “immediately,” unless there’s a statewide race or ballot measure at stake. That generally takes place every two years and in those elections, “The election administrator’s public reporting of the results must first be provided to the Secretary of State’s election night reporting system.”

The media will have to wait, but Seaman said the delay should be minimal. Last week, local media received the results shortly after 8 p.m. with little delay.

“We’ll get the results here, get them ready, load them to the SOS website, wait until we confirmed everyone had voted, post to their website and then hand them to reporters here locally,” Seaman said. “They didn’t like it when you (media) were a step ahead of them.”

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