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Missoula County election worker Cathy Schindler collects a stack of mail ballots after processing them Thursday morning. A number of the ballots are being returned with insufficient postage and the county has spent about $75 so far to cover the shortfall.

KURT WILSON/Missoulian

For some western Montana counties, one stamp is not enough when it comes to mailing back absentee ballots this election season.

It’ll work in Ravalli, Lake and Granite counties, for instance, because their mail-in ballots come in smaller envelopes and don’t weigh enough to require more than a 45-cent stamp.

But in others …

“It still seems to be an issue,” Missoula County election supervisor Vickie Zeier said Thursday.

It has become exacerbated this election year as the number of mail ballots in her county approached 40,000 this week, some 10,000 more than ever before.

When ballots come back with insufficient postage, Missoula County has an agreement with the post office that it’ll cover the shortfall to assure delivery. It’s getting pricey. On Monday, the midpoint of the mail-in season, more than 300 ballots arrived with just one stamp affixed, Zeier said. Cost to the county? $75.40.

That’s on the high end, but Zeier said Thursday the county has racked up a $675 bill with the post office.

Zeier said the required 65-cent postage is noted on the yellow information sheet that accompanies each ballot.

“We’ve been criticized that it’s not on the outside of the envelope,” she said. “Those envelopes are prepared in a high volume, and then we just use them.”

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Postage is based on weight. For a one-page ballot in lesser elections, the same sized envelopes are used but a standard stamp will do the trick. That cost 8 cents in the 1972 presidential election when Richard Nixon and George McGovern ran for president and few people voted by mail. It was 42 cents during the 2008 race between Barack Obama and John McCain and the first big rush of absentee ballots.

The cost of postage varies from county to county. All have two-page ballots, but use envelopes of various sizes to return them in.

To vote by mail in Powell and Deer Lodge counties, for instance, costs $1.10. Those envelopes are a foot long and 9.5 inches wide.

“We don’t like to fold them a whole lot,” said Diane Grey, elections administrator in Powell County.

Still, she’s had “maybe 10” that haven’t been returned with enough postage.

It costs 65 cents in Sanders County to mail in your votes, but that “stamp and a half” price “is not that big of a problem for us,” elections chief Jennine Robbins said.

Ravalli County voters are turning the postage issue on its ear.

“I have too much postage on mine,” election administrator Regina Plettenberg said.

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Voters are hearing the message from neighboring Missoula County about the need for extra stamps and figuring it applies in their county too, she said.

But Ravalli County uses standard legal-sized envelopes.

“My ballots only take one stamp but my voters are putting on two,” said Plettenberg. “Vickie uses the bigger size envelope with the extra flap that covers the signature that we don’t do.

“It’s got to be just the envelope size, because we get our ballots through the same company that Missoula County does.”

Kathie Newgard is sure of it.

Lake County’s election administrator said she doesn’t have many postage issues. She uses size 9 secrecy envelopes (4 inches by 9 inches) and size 10 affidavit envelopes (4.125 by 9.5).

“I think Vickie (Missoula County) uses 10 and 11,” Newgard said.

Mineral County’s mail-in ballots also are one-stampers and they’re coming in just fine, election administrator Staci Hayes said.

“My biggest issue is I put the wrong amount in the instructions by a penny. I forgot the postage went up in January,” she said.

Needless to say, she has heard about her mistake, but it has caused little consternation.

“Thankfully most everybody buys the ‘forever’ stamps,” Hayes said.

Absentee ballot counts are breaking all records in counties big and small in western Montana.

With 12 days left before the election, Missoula County has issued 39,349 ballots. That’s a steady increase from just over 10,000 in the 2004 presidential election and nearly 30,000 in 2008.

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Zeier said 16,721 (42 percent) had been returned and accepted by Thursday, another 1,278 were undeliverable and 95 were rejected due to signature issues.

Plettenberg said Ravalli County had sent out 9,800 mail ballots on Thursday and she expected that number to approach 11,000 by Election Day. Those numbers compare to the roughly 9,100 in 2008. Well over half of the mail ballots – 5,500 – have been returned.

Normally there’s a rash of unsigned ballots in the county, Plettenberg said, but her office has seen very few this time.

“People are reading the instructions and really taking care that they’re doing it right,” she said. “They’ve been unbelievable.”

In Mineral County, of the roughly 2,700 active registered voters, 902 had received early ballots by midweek and 534 (59 percent) had returned them. Voters in Granite County have received 690 absentee ballots and returned 305 (44 percent).

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