Voter turnout hovers around 30% as Montanans head to the polls on primary election day

By midday Tuesday, 226,557 absentee ballots had been returned, for a turnout rate of around 30%.

By: - June 7, 2022 8:39 pm

Voting illustration (Illustration by Getty Images).

Election administrators across the state have primarily reported smooth sailing as Montanans hit the polls to cast their ballot in the 2022 primaries.

By midday Tuesday, 226,557 absentee ballots had been returned, a turnout rate of around 30%. There are 743,667 Montanans who registered to vote by the noon Monday deadline. In the 2018 primary election, the last non-presidential primary, 679,333 Montanans registered to vote, and 282,704 cast ballots for a 41.6% rate.

With the passage of a new law, voters were not allowed to register on election day, but county clerks and recorders said messaging around the new law has been effective as they have only had to turn away a handful of people looking to register on Tuesday.

“Things have been a little more on the slow side, which is to be expected with a non-presidential primary. Historically those have been between 37 and 40 percent turnout. We have only had a couple of people we had to turn away who are trying to register,” said Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg. 

Election officials from Missoula, Lewis and Clark, Gallatin and Cascade counties reported the same.

“Sounds like things went pretty well today … we had more people in the morning across our larger polling areas, and it has been quieter in the evening,” said Lewis and Clark County Clerk and Recorder Connor Fitzpatrick.

The outlier was Lincoln County, which due to a technical error, was forced to count all ballots by hand. Election officials at the county said they were too busy to return a phone call to the Daily Montanan.

“The outside vendor the county used to print the ballots printed on a size that could not be read by the tabulator,” said Richie Melby, spokesperson for the Montana Secretary of State, in an email. “The law requires the county to tabulate all ballots by machine or to tabulate ballots by manual count. Due to the fact that all ballots could not be counted by a machine, they will be counted by hand.”

The two biggest races on the ballot are who will represent Montana in the U.S. House of Representatives. U.S. Census results mean Montana gained a seat and now has an eastern and western district.

Jeremy Johnson, an associate political science professor at Carroll College in Helena, said turnout rates are on track with what he expected.

“It sounds like it will be a decent turnout for a primary. In Montana, the numbers are generally 30 to 40 percent, and it seems we will definitely get well into that range,” he said.

He added that the lack of big races suppresses turnout.

“We don’t have a senate race going on, and that’s always a big thing in Montana, so without the senate race, I think it’s a pretty good turnout considering there isn’t a senate or presidential race on the ballot, and obviously, we are going to get more when it’s all done,” he said.

But overall, he said there is more interest in politics among voters.

“I think there is also just more interest in politics, and residual interest left over from the Trump era … and with social media, it really engages people in politics, there is an entertainment value, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect a very high turnout in this primary,” he said.

U.S. House candidates

In Montana’s Western District, Matt Jette, a high school and college teacher, former Trump cabinet member Ryan Zinke, former State Sen. Al Olszewski, pastor Mary Todd and general contractor Mitch Heuer are vying for the seat on the Republican side. Public health expert Cora Neumann, Missoula lawyer Monica Tranel and former state Rep. Tom Winter are all running for the seat as Democrats.

In the Eastern District, Billings pharmacist Kyle Austin, Bozeman resident James Boyette, Helena environmental contractor Charles Walking Child, and incumbent Rep. Matt Rosendale are all running as Republicans. And former Billings Councilwoman Penny Ronning and Billings resident Skylar Williams are running as Democrats. The name of now-deceased State Senator Mark Sweeney is also on the ballot.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .