City primary election attracts record number of voters


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford, right, explains how workers audit mail-in ballot envelopes, which will be opened Tuesday morning.

It’s official. As of noon on Monday, a record number of voters had already cast their ballots in Billings’ primary election.

Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford said he had 21,246 mail-in ballots in hand at noon, beating the old record of 20,966 ballots cast in the primary election of 2009.

This has been a crowded, costly, closely watched city election, with six people actively running for mayor and 15 people vying for five open seats on the City Council — one seat in each of the city’s five wards. All seats are nonpartisan, meaning candidates don’t run with any political affiliation.

The polls close Tuesday night at 8 in the mail-ballot election, and voters can drop off ballots until then, but only in the county elections office on the first floor of the Yellowstone County Courthouse.

People can also register to vote there from 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. Rutherford said he’ll have two tables set up in the lobby outside his office where people can drop off ballots and register to vote.

Rutherford is not expecting too many Election Day registrants, saying few late-comers show up for non-federal elections. Between the close of regular registration on Aug. 14 — after which people had to register in person — and Monday, only 32 people had registered to vote, Rutherford said.

There will be a public test of the vote-counting machines at 9 a.m. Tuesday on the second floor of the courthouse, Rutherford said, and he expects workers to begin tallying votes by 10.

He figures ballots will be counted by 5 p.m., leaving untallied only those cast in person by people in the courthouse by 8 p.m. And that means near-final results should be posted on the elections office webpage shortly after the polls close at 8.

“Hopefully, I’m out of here by 9,” Rutherford said.

The top two vote-getters in each race will advance to the general election on Nov. 7, which will also be a mail-ballot-only election.

Meanwhile, reports filed with the Montana commissioner of political practices show that candidates have been raising a lot of money, at least for a municipal election.

We won’t know exactly how much money was spent on the election until final reports are filed, and the records available now are a bit problematic, since candidates filed them on different days for different reporting periods. But the top fundraiser so far, according to current records, is mayoral candidate Bill Cole, who reported having raised $22,590 as of Aug. 14.

In the same race, Jeff Essmann reported having raised $15,780 as of Aug. 13, followed by mayoral candidates Randy Hafer, $8,625 as of Aug. 18; Danielle Egnew, $1,620 as of Aug. 13; Angela Cimmino, $1,217 as of Aug. 18; and Danny Sandefur, who filed papers saying he expected to raise less than $500, meaning he doesn’t have to file any other reports unless he exceeds that amount.

There was one other mayoral candidate on the ballot, but Paul Bledsoe announced his withdrawal from the race too late to have his named removed. The candidates are hoping to succeed Mayor Tom Hanel, who is term-limited out after two consecutive terms.

The most costly City Council race by far is in Ward 1, where the incumbent, Mike Yakawich, reported raising $4,820 as of Aug. 26, while his challenger, Charlie Smillie reported $6,385 as of Aug. 31. A third candidate, Joshua Kostelecky, has withdrawn from the race.

In Ward 2, three candidates are vying to replace Cimmino, who is term-limited and is running for mayor. Roger Gravgaard reported raising $950 as of Aug. 31, while Ta’jin Perez raised $250 as of Aug. 18. Frank Ewalt reported that he expected to raise less than $500.

In Ward 3, four candidates hope to succeed a term-limited Rich McFadden. The top fundraiser there is Nadja Brown, who reported $4,335 by Aug. 26. Tyler Starkweather reported raising $2,123 by Sept. 4, Denise Joy had $1,355 by Aug. 30 and Mike Larson reported raising no money. A fifth candidate, Russell Rowland, dropped out of the race.

In Ward 4, where the incumbent, Al Swanson, is not seeking re-election, Penny Ronning reported having raised $1,659 by Sept. 2, and George Blackard reported $1,120 as of Aug. 31. A third candidate, Rick McIntyre, dropped out of the race.

In Ward 5, the top fundraiser was Dennis Ulvestad, who reported receipts of $4,500 as of Sept. 1, followed by the incumbent, D. Shaun Brown, with $1,110 as of Aug. 18. Two other candidates, Alexander Clark and Rhonda Whiteman, said they did not expect to raise or spend any money on the election.

Also appearing on the ballot, in an uncontested race, is Municipal Court Judge Sheila Kolar.

Most of the mayoral and City Council candidates responded to a questionnaire sent out by Last Best News. You can read their responses in the mayor’s race here, Ward 1 here, Ward 2 here, Ward 3 here, Ward 4 here and Ward 5 here.

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