Montana allows counties to hold all-mail voting in November

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana will allow counties to hold all-mail voting in November to limit the spread of the coronavirus, said Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who is running for the U.S. Senate.

The order was issued in a response to a request from the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders and the Montana Association of Counties. Republicans say voters should have the right to go to polling places.

“If Montanans are able to safely go to the grocery store, they should be able to safely go to their polling location to vote on Election Day," state GOP spokesperson Brooke Stroyke said in a statement.

The Democratic governor issued a similar order earlier this year that permitted the June 2 primary to be held by mail. That election saw record-high turnout.

“It only makes sense that we start preparing now to ensure that no Montanan will have to choose between their vote or their health,” Bullock told reporters. “They didn’t have to in June, and they shouldn’t have to in November.”

Bullock, who dropped out of the race for president, is prevented from seeking a third term because of term limits and is running against Republican Sen. Steve Daines.

Allowing all-mail voting means counties can send ballots to voters and expands early voting. Counties must establish and enforce social distancing policies at in-person polling locations, designated ballot drop-off locations and other poll facilities.

State officials also announced new testing policies for universities to limit the spread of the virus. Montana will spend up to $20 million from a federal virus relief fund for testing and contact-tracing efforts on public university campuses, Bullock said.

The Montana University System will not have universal testing policies, and instead will focus on people at a higher risk of spreading the virus. That includes student workers whose jobs involve contact with the public, choir members and theater students, and students who at a heightened risk of infection.

“We will have a laser focus on addressing the symptomatic individuals through rapid quarantine, rapid testing and isolation of individuals who test positive,” Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian said.

Students will be asked to screen themselves daily for symptoms, wear masks in classes and avoid large gatherings.

Christian said there is no precise goal for the number of tests the university system hopes to perform. The system enrolls more than 40,000 students across 16 public universities and colleges, according to its website.

The universities will increase staffing for contact-tracing efforts, and dedicate dormitory facilities for quarantine housing, Christian said.

In other coronavirus-related news:

— State officials confirmed 173 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases. That brings the state’s total to 4,602, with more than 1,500 people who have not yet recovered.

Big Horn County confirmed the deaths of three more residents Thursday, raising its death toll to 14. Big Horn makes up less than 2% of Montana’s population. But 20% of the state’s coronavirus-related deaths have taken place in the county, which includes the Crow Indian Reservation.

According to a recent epidemiological report, Native Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Native Americans make up 7% of Montana residents, but 15% of total confirmed cases and 36% of confirmed deaths related to the virus as of July 26.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.

— Montana applications for unemployment assistance declined during the week ending on Aug. 1, according to the U.S. Employment and Training Administration.

The number of applications fell to 1,854, a decrease of 22.4% from the previous week. The number of applications is still nearly three times larger than the same week last year.

The state Department of Labor & Industry said that more than 41,000 unemployment insurance payments totaling over $40 million were issued during the same week. This marked the first week after the expiration of the $600 extra weekly federal unemployment payments for recipients, the department said.

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Iris Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.