By Mira Brody EBS STAFF
HELENA – At an Aug. 6 press conference Gov. Steve Bullock updated the community on COVID-19 and discussed the subject of testing Montana at universities this fall with Commissioner Clay Christian. He identified nine hot spot communities in the state, but announced no further restrictions at this time.
In light of COVID-19, the Montana Association of Counties, the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders and elections administrators asked Gov. Bullock to give counties the option to conduct the upcoming 2020 election by mail.
“I’m in agreement with election administrators, who have firsthand knowledge of the situation,” said Gov. Bullock. “We must protect a citizen’s right to vote while protecting their public health.”
To eliminate large crowds gathering at in-person polling places and to protect poll workers—many of whom are in the at-risk age group—he announced the implementation of a directive that will help voters during the pandemic.
The directive, effective immediately, will closely match the same one implemented in the June primaries, allowing people to vote by mail, vote early, or to cast their vote in person on election day if they prefer. The primary purpose of this directive is to give county election administrators the time and flexibility they need to effectively implement the best procedures given their local circumstances.
Additionally, the Directive provides expanded timelines for voter registration, ballot distribution, and early voting opportunities. The Directive extends the close of regular voter registration until 10 days before the election to minimize the need for in-person registration or lines. County election administrators will be able to make ballots available from Oct. 2 until the end of the election. Mail-in ballots will be sent on Oct. 9 and no postage will be required to return ballots by mail.
As schools reopen in the coming weeks, Christian discussed the state’s plan for welcoming university students back to campuses safely. Gov. Bullock has allocated $20 million dollars from the state’s CARES Act to assist the university system in meeting its goals of keeping students on campus safe and prevent spread this fall.
“We’re deeply grateful to the Governor for this funding, which will help us better implement our testing protocols and procedures,” said Christian, noting they will not test each student arriving to campuses, as it is not a good use of resources since many tests would miss early, asymptomatic cases. He added that while testing is critical to mitigating COVID-19, it is only one piece of a comprehensive plan.
The Montana University System is prioritizing rapid detection and isolation of new COVID-19 cases, contact tracing and rapid quarantine and testing of individuals who have had close contact with positive COVID-19 cases. Tests will be available to those who need them. All students will be asked to wear a mask, socially distance and self monitor symptoms while attending school.