Montana's absentee vote turnout in the spotlight after Gianforte 'body slam'

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Story highlights

  • While absentee voting is on the rise, the number of turned in ballots is lower than 2014 so far
  • That can change because absentee ballots can be turned in on Election Day (which is today)

Missoula, Montana (CNN)Republican candidate Greg Gianforte's alleged "body slam" of a reporter Wednesday night might have shaken up expectations for a special election for Montana's single seat in the House, but a large percentage of those expected to vote have already turned in their ballots.

As of Wednesday night, 259,558 ballots have been returned, said Derek J. Oestreicher, the Director of Elections and Voter Services in the Office of the Montana Secretary of State. That number is of 357,596 absentee ballots sent out, meaning about 73% of absentee ballots are in.
Since audio of the scuffle surfaced, Montana's Secretary of State office has been getting calls and questions asking if voters can come in and change their vote. Under Montana law, however, ballots that have mailed in and received by county election administrators are considered votes received and cannot be changed.
    Missoula County election administrator Rebecca Connors says she got a dozen phone calls just this morning from voters wanting to change their vote. Had the audio with Jacobs not happened, she would have had zero, Connors told CNN.

    National trend for mail-in ballots

    So far the raw number of early ballots returned in this special election are higher than the 2014 midterm. In 2014, 225,136 Montanans voted absentee in the midterms total.
    Just like the national trend, more Montanans are choosing to request absentee ballots. So while the raw numbers show more absentee voters already, the reality is that a smaller percentage of the total absentee ballots out there have been returned. In the 2014 midterm, 88% of the absentee ballots were returned. Keep in mind that in Montana, voters can deliver their absentee ballots on Election Day. How many get delivered is a key question, and predicting that in a special election can be tricky.
    Of approximately 700,000 Montana registered voters overall, 37% cast their vote early, Oestreicher said. This is before in person voting began Thursday.
    Montanans can register to vote and vote on the same day so the 700,000 overall registered voters could rise. Polls are open until 8 p.m. local time, 10 p.m. ET.
    Gianforte has been charged with misdemeanor assault after he allegedly "body slammed" a reporter from the Guardian and broke his glasses on Wednesday night. The reporter, Ben Jacobs, was attempting to ask Gianforte about Republicans' plans for health care and interrupted a Fox News interview as they were setting up. Gianforte's spokesman in a statement later blamed the altercation on Jacobs' "aggressive behavior."