How do mail ballot elections work?

How do mail ballot elections work

Governor Bullock issued a directive on August 6 granting counties the authority to conduct the upcoming election by mail ballot. The directive states that any county conducting a mail ballot election must also provide for in-person voting October 2 through Election Day.  

Across the nation, people are talking about moving to mail ballot elections and wondering: how do mail ballot elections work? 

The first thing to know is that in Lewis and Clark County, and indeed counties across Montana, we are accustomed to conducting elections by mail ballot. In fact, even in elections where polling places are open, most Montanans cast their vote absentee-by-mail. 

There are laws and procedures in place that account for every ballot issued, received, and counted. These processes also ensure that every person's ballot is secret. Most importantly, these processes are open to public observation.

When someone registers to vote in Montana, a voter record is created by their county in the statewide election management and voter registration database. Every application received from a voter is scanned into this system. 

A few weeks before election day, ballots are mailed to all registered voters with an Active voting status. Mailed ballot packets include the ballot (or ballots in a primary election), instructions, a ballot secrecy envelope, and a return envelope with the voter's affirmation.

Voters are instructed to seal their voted ballot in a ballot secrecy envelope. The voter then signs the affirmation on the return envelope and encloses the ballot secrecy envelope within the return envelope. The return envelope, signed with the enclosed ballot, must be received at the elections office or designated drop-off location by 8pm on Election Day.

In Lewis and Clark County, we set a goal of processing returned ballots the day they are received. Voters can track the status of federal election ballots online with the state's My Voter Page service at The online tracking service is updated every night, so if we receive and process your ballot on Monday, you will be able to see that on My Voter Page on Tuesday.

When voted ballots are received at the elections office, we compare the signature on the voter's affirmation to the signatures scanned into the voter's record. If the signatures match, the ballot is accepted for further processing. If the signatures do not match, or there is no signature, the voter is notified and must resolve the issue by showing ID and providing an updated signature. This signature is then applied to their voting record to assist with future signature verification.

The status of returned ballots is tracked in our election management and voter registration database. After processing batches of accepted ballots, we print a report from that database. Now we begin a series of reconciliation steps. First, staff ensure that each envelope reflected on the report is included in the batches, and vice versa. This is a double check to make sure the staff who processed the ballots in the system did everything correctly.

In the next reconciliation step, the secrecy envelopes may be separated from the signed return envelopes. Two staff are required for this step. As they work, they complete a report of the total number of return envelopes from their batches, and the total number of secrecy envelopes removed. They are also making sure that each return envelope only contains one secrecy envelope. If they encounter anything other than one secrecy envelope per return envelope, they check-in with supervisors. They document their work on reports.

Once the secrecy envelopes are separated from the return envelopes, we cannot tie a particular ballot to a voter. We can still tie the reconciliation reports together, so we have a documented paper trail accounting for each ballot received.

Starting three business days before Election Day, the ballots can be removed from the secrecy envelopes. The Election Judges who do this job complete reconciliation reports documenting how many ballots were removed from secrecy envelopes to be delivered to the tabulators that count the votes.

Starting one day before Election Day, the ballots are tabulated, which means the votes are counted. The tabulators also complete reports showing how many ballots they received and counted. Though results are tabulated the day before Election Day, they are not released until voting closes at 8pm on Election Day. 

In the end, we are able to tie the reports from the final step, tabulation, back to the first reconciliation reports from the election management system, without being able to tie the votes on a single ballot to a single voter. 

Most importantly, the steps to protect the secret ballot make these processes transparent and open to public observation.