Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the voting record of George Blackard, a City Council candidate in Ward 4, who was inadvertently left out of the original story.
Among the 12 people running for Billings City Council and the mayor’s office this year, three have perfect voting records, casting ballots in every election as far back as electronic records stretch.
Several other candidates have records nearly as good, having missed only a handful of elections over two decades or more. Several others have spotty records, in some cases missing as many elections as they participated in.
Only one candidate appears to have not voted at all for more than 10 years before the Sept. 12 primary. That would be Nadja Brown, who was the top vote-getter in the primary, when she ran against four other candidates in the Ward 3 City Council contest.
Brown voted in the primary, but she had registered to vote barely two weeks earlier, and before that she had not voted in any elections since 2004.
That is according to her “voter profile report” generated by the Yellowstone County Elections Office. Such records are public information, but they must be obtained through a county elections office or the Montana secretary of state’s office because they are part of the state’s voting database.
The voting records for Billings municipal candidates were given to Last Best News by Bret Rutherford, elections administrator for Yellowstone County.
Brown, who won just over 35 percent of the votes in the five-way race in Ward 3, had registered to vote on July 25. The deadline for filing for office was June 19, but Rutherford said there was nothing wrong with Brown registering to vote after the filing deadline, because state law requires only that a candidate be a registered voter on Election Day.
Electronic records kept by the county track participation in all elections, including city, county and school elections, back to 2006. Before that year, electronic records cover participation only in federal elections. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Rutherford said, the electronic records for some voters go back to 1996 and for others to 1994 or 1992.
The records show only whether a given person voted in an election, not, of course, how that person voted.
In Brown’s case, records show she voted in federal elections in 2000 and 2004. When she failed to vote in 2006, she went on the inactive-voter roll. As required by law, she was sent two letters after that, reminding her to renew her registration, and when she failed to respond and then did not vote in 2008 or 2010, she was canceled, or stricken from the voting rolls.
Brown did not respond to requests for comment, delivered by phone, email and Facebook message.
In the Nov. 7 general election, Brown will face Denise Joy, who came in second in the primary. Joy’s voter profile report showed that since moving back to Billings in 2014, she missed voting in only one election, the city primary in 2015.
“I can’t remember any particular reason” for missing that election, Joy said. “I may have mislaid it (the mail-in ballot) and then missed the deadline.”
In Ward 1, incumbent Mike Yakawich was one of three candidates with perfect records. He voted in every election for which records are available going back to 1996.
His opponent, Charlie Smillie, who is 27 and whose records go back to 2008, show that he missed a few elections since then — including a school election in 2016, the city primary in 2015, a vote on a county jail levy in 2015, and city and school elections in 2013.
In Ward 2, the top vote-getter in the primary, Frank Ewalt, has a perfect record going back to 1994. The second-place finisher in the primary, who will face Ewalt in the general election, is Roger Gravgaard, who had a nearly perfect record. Since 1997, he’d missed just two elections — the city primary in 2015 and a school bond election in 2010.
In Ward 4, both top finishers in the primary had spotty voting records. Penny Ronning, who placed first in the three-way race, was a fairly regular voter since 1992, which included stints in Park and Gallatin counties. Since coming back to Billings in 2008 she has failed to vote in four elections — school elections in 2008 and 2010 and city elections in 2009 and 2015.
The candidate she’ll face on Nov. 7, George Blackard, registered to vote in Yellowstone County in 2001 and voted in all federal elections since 2002, but he missed school elections this year and in 2016, the city election in 2015, the jail levy vote in 2014 and the city general election in 2013, though he did vote in that primary.
In Ward 5, Dennis Ulvestad, the primary winner, had an almost perfect record going back to 1992, having missed only a school election in 2008 and a city election in 2007.
His opponent in the general election, incumbent Shaun Brown, who placed second in the three-way primary, has missed quite a few votes over the years, including this year’s school election, school and federal elections in 2016, the city primary and general election in 2015 and the jail levy election that same year.
He also sat out the presidential election of 2016 and a city election in 2007. Until this year’s primary, he had not voted since 2014, according to his voter profile report.
“I will admit that I have been for the most part a nonvoter or a very sporadic voter my entire life,” Brown said in an emailed statement. “I understand that voting is a privilege but my priorities were simply keeping one step above welfare for my entire adult life. It has only been the last 10 years that my priorities have changed. My priorities became less restricted to money and I began to take an interest in the community (that) has given me everything that I have today.”
“My voting history clearly shows that my priorities were not on politics in any way, but my interest in Billings is genuine,” he added. “In truth I still have little interest in politics but very much love my city.”
In the six-way mayoral race, the primary winners were Bill Cole and Jeff Essmann. Essmann voted in every election going back to 1996, and Cole’s record was nearly as good. Since 1996, he has failed to vote only three times — in the jail levy election in 2015, the federal primary of 2012 and the city election of 2007.