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Montana politics, elections and legislative news.

Montana Republicans call for election security investigation

A 2020 Montana primary election absentee ballot
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio

Montana Republican legislators are asking their leaders to form a special panel to investigate the security of the 2020 election. All but a dozen of the 98 state Republicans have signed onto the request. Montana Public Radio’s Shaylee Ragar talks with the Montana State News Bureau’s Sam Wilson to break down what’s fueling the effort.

Shaylee Ragar Sam, you broke the news that Montana Republican lawmakers are calling for the creation of a special committee to investigate the state's election security. Can you break down for us what they're asking for?

Sam Wilson Yeah. So, the letter that was sent to the Senate president and House speaker, who are both Republicans, is asking them to appoint a special committee which would include members of both chambers, and they'd be conducting hearings about the security of the state's election system and talking about possible changes. And they're asking for the creation of a committee that would be reflective of their majorities in the House and Senate. So for the Republicans, there would be roughly a two thirds advantage they'd have over Democrats on that panel. But otherwise, the letter doesn't really say a whole lot else. It doesn't include any specific policy recommendations or instances where they think that the current election system falls short. But it makes note of their constitutional duty to write election laws, but doesn't really elaborate on, you know, how this constitutional duty can't be upheld through normal legislative sessions, other than citing kind of a general lack of faith in the election system that they've heard from their constituents.

Shaylee Ragar It seems like they have a decent amount of leverage here. Is that a fair assumption?

Sam Wilson Yeah, I'd say that seems fair to me. But you know, at the end of the day, it's completely in the hands of the Senate President Mark Blasdale and the House Speaker Wilie Galt. It's probably worth noting that a lot of the more moderate members of the GOP have also signed on. So even though this is kind of an effort that's being driven by the party's right wing, it clearly has the attention of legislators sort of across the Republican spectrum.

Shaylee Ragar You report that the momentum behind this effort has been building for some time. How so?

Sam Wilson Yeah, it's definitely been a major issue nationally since the 2020 election, where after the election, you had Republicans in swing states that went to Biden who have advanced a number of allegations of voter fraud, although to date no evidence has been brought forward that really proves any coordinated effort to, you know, switch votes or alter the election results to defeat Donald Trump. And in a way, this has trickled down to Montana, and you certainly saw a lot of changes to election laws in the recent legislative session. You know, Republicans mostly adopted the message that Montana's elections are already secure. But, you know, they argued in some cases that changes were needed to push back on skepticism about the integrity of the election that again, they've heard from their constituents. So, you know, we saw a lot of changes to the election laws in the last session, but all the same, there's been this sort of steady drumbeat from the right wing of the Montana GOP for more to be done. Last month, I attended a pair of events in Missoula and in Hamilton, and they brought in several speakers who kind of tour on a sort of national circuit to give presentations on how the election was supposedly stolen. But a lot of this is also happening locally through grassroots organizing, through social media. And it's just kind of been building steadily since just after the elections last November,

Shaylee Ragar When Montana Republicans are talking about fraud, what kind of evidence are they bringing up to back up their claims?

Sam Wilson Well, for the theories that are being advanced by the more, kind of, nationally prominent speakers who came to western Montana last month, most of their claims tend to rely on statistical analysis and comparisons to previous election outcomes. And, you know, they essentially argue that these findings reveal anomalies that couldn't have happened without some sort of widespread tampering. But what they don't offer is much specific in terms of, you know, how some kind of widespread hacking effort or switching votes or other kind of nefarious actions could have actually been carried out. You know, and some of these efforts have been pretty thoroughly debunked. Others have gone to court and failed to hold up under that level of scrutiny.

Sam Wilson And then, kind of more vocally since earlier this year, Brad Tschida, who's a Republican representative from Missoula, he's been helping to lead an effort by a number of Republican activists in his area. According to that group, back in January they conducted public records review where they counted the validation envelopes, which are one of the envelopes that mail-in ballots have to be sealed inside, and they counted those up and compared them to the county's official election results. And so they said that they found a pretty major discrepancy between the number of ballot envelopes that they counted and the official vote total that came out of Missoula County. And for their part, elections officials have stood by their results. The head election administrator there told me that, you know, he felt that the group's methods were imprecise, that the way that they counted was really prone to error and a lot different from, you know, some of the hand recount processes that counties are required to go through when they audit the election results. So Representative Tschida has been one of the more vocal lawmakers on this issue, and he's pointed to those findings and suggested that it shows the need to conduct a broader investigation into the 2020 election.

Shaylee Ragar Speaking of the 2020 election, you also dive into some irony here in your reporting, that Republicans won all five statewide races and picked up 10 legislative seats in that election in a landslide. So for Republican lawmakers to say the election was not secure is kind of counterintuitive. What's your takeaway there?

Sam Wilson Well, yeah, there's definitely been a lot of criticism to that effect. And most Republicans I've asked about this have said, you know, that they believe there seems to have been shenanigans in the last election and they want to get to the bottom of it whatever the consequences. And then, you know, I've talked to Democrats, they've been pretty universal in condemning this, you know, saying there's essentially just another way for Republicans to show, sort of, fealty to Donald Trump, who of course, still refuses to concede the presidential loss last election and has continued to push this idea that the election was rigged.

Shaylee Ragar You reported that 12 Republican lawmakers did not sign on to the letter and that some may be worried that will hurt their standing in the party. Talk to me about that.

Sam Wilson Yeah, I mean, to be clear, you know, nobody's specifically told me on the record that they signed on in order to pass some sort of purity test. But you know, I spoke with one Republican who refused to sign the letter, and he suggested as much as did a professor at UM, Lee Banville, who's a political analyst who's been around for a while. You know, the reality is, you know, June 2022 isn't that far away. There's a lot of contested primaries already. And you know, we've seen the right wing of the Republican Party kind of turn up the heat in challenging some of those more moderate Republican legislators in the last election. So, I think it's fair to assume that'll probably continue into this year. And then, you know, the sort of main Republican lawmaker spearheading this campaign to create a special election committee, Senator Theresa Manzella, a Republican from Hamilton, she was actually pretty explicit about that goal in an address she gave during an event in South Dakota. And in that speech back in August, she called out, you know, so-called moderate Republicans and advocated for kind of more conservative Christian Republicans to take their place. And that was also a big part of the conversation at the events I went to in Missoula and Hamilton last month.

Shaylee Ragar I'm wondering what comes next here and what kinds of actions lawmakers could pursue.

Sam Wilson Probably the best answer is we'll have to just kind of wait and see what approach this special committee takes if their leadership decides to go ahead with it. You know, if that happens, who gets appointed will definitely be a big part of how this all plays out. Some of the more moderate members of the party have signed on and told me that they basically just like to hold hearings with experts, use it as an opportunity to kind of educate voters on how their election system works and talk about what security measures are already in place. And then, you know, the lawmakers who have really been pushing this, though, they've been advocating for county by county canvasses in the state, you know, which is a strategy Republicans have advocated for elsewhere around the country to basically go around knocking on doors, manually checking to make sure the voting roles are accurate. You know, and others have advocated for something called a forensic audit of the results, which you know, frankly, can mean a lot of things, but could resemble a situation kind of similar to what we saw in Arizona, where you have people hand-counting ballots to check the official results and opening up the machines that count votes. So at this point, the two members of the leadership, Galt and Blasdel, they've asked the state's Legislative Services Division to check on the process for appointing a special committee, since we're outside the legislative session. Their response to their caucuses didn't really indicate one way or the other how they'll decide. But they did raise the possibility of a special session being called to address this, and they've also asked for an estimate of what would be the cost to bring everybody back to Helena for that.

Shaylee Ragar Well, we'll definitely be interested to see what happens. Sam, thank you so much for sharing your reporting with us.

Sam Wilson Yeah, glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Shaylee is Montana Public Radio's Capitol reporter. She previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and covered the 2019 legislative session for the University of Montana's Legislative News Service.