Missoula County’s elections office and a local GOP-backed citizens group remain locked in a dispute regarding an alleged discrepancy in the number of ballots cast there during the 2020 election. The claims haven’t been substantiated in court, yet the allegations are being used in an argument to justify the need for enhanced election security in the state.
Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman shows off an early step to process absentee ballot envelopes in Missoula County’s elections center, before walking through the office’s subsequent procedures to verify a resident’s vote.
Missoula officials are trying to ensure confidence in the county’s election safeguards following allegations of irregularities in the 2020 election results from a former Trump administration advisor and a group of Missoula residents including Republican Rep. Brad Tschida.
The claims stem from the group spending hours counting absentee ballot envelopes at the Missoula fairgrounds in February and allegedly coming up more than 4,500 envelopes short of the county’s final tally of more than 72,000 votes. The county denies that its total could be so skewed.
Seaman says the resident group lacked standard election safeguards, like double checking tallies and requiring staff to review each other’s work.
“And we went through this process with two independent boards to certify these results. When we had asked them to re-review what they had done, they opted not to at all. And in elections that simply isn't possible,” Seaman said.
Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen issued an open letter last week outlining how her office will protect the “integrity of elections” in Montana. The letter does not mention Missoula County, but references “voting irregularities” in Montana and the United States following the 2020 election. It says Jacobsen’s office is exploring changes to county elections procedure and is considering ways to provide more citizen access to election materials.
A spokesperson for the secretary of state didn’t make an official from the office available for an interview after multiple requests by YPR.
The conversation surrounding alleged voting irregularities comes as the Montana Legislature advances changes to the state’s election process, which proponents say are needed to shore up election security and opponents say could make it harder for some people to vote.
“It is a heavy year for election-related legislation,” said Wendy Underhill, elections expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Underhill says Montana’s efforts fit into a national trend, following election policy changes during the coronavirus pandemic and former Pres. Donald Trump’s efforts to discount results across the U.S.
“And that's not a surprise because the 2020 elections certainly had everybody's attention, in terms of winners and losers,” Underhill said.
This session, Montana lawmakers have passed policies, largely along party lines, shortening hour requirements at some polling places and requiring voter roll cleaning annually, instead of every odd year.
The Montana Democratic Party challenged the constitutionality of two other bills ending same-day voter registration and changing which types of ID are acceptable to vote within hours of them being signed into law Monday.
Underhill says Montana is the only state to have ended same-day voter registration after putting it in place.
The alleged voting discrepancies in Missoula County were included in Rep. Tschida’s arguments in support of increasing how often elections administrators update voter registration lists.
He says additional statewide protocols would increase confidence in Montana elections and make it more difficult for people trying to skirt election laws.
“We're shooting for writing rules that will encompass everyone, but really focus on that section of the population that may not be as forthright as others are going to be,” Tschida said.
Former Missoula City Council member Lyn Hellegaard, a member of the citizens group, says the dispute over Missoula County’s count has major implications.
“The races in Missoula are, some of them are decided by, you know, single digit tallies. A 6% discrepancy rate is huge,” Hellegaard said.
Seaman says human error happened in Missoula County’s last election, but not to a degree that would impact race results.
Seaman says a recount, which Hellegaard and others have asked for, would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“If somebody tells you the world is flat, you don't buy them a round-trip plane ticket to show them that it's truly round. The clear next step on this is for them to say which votes are fraudulent and bring this to contest the election. Until that happens, we're really stuck with them asking us to disprove a negative,” Seaman said.
Tschida says himself and other members of the citizen group met with officials from the secretary of state’s office this month to discuss the alleged irregularities.
Seaman requested a meeting with the office but he says he hasn’t received a response.
Regina Plettenberg, the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders legislative chair, backs Missoula County’s elections procedure and says bills intended to tighten election security are solutions in search of a problem.
“I think we’ve had good laws and we haven’t had issues, and so it’s hard to fix a problem we’re not seeing,” Plettenberg said.
During a recent press call, Democratic House Minority Leader Kim Abbott said the bills amount to a violation of voting rights.
“When you step back and look at all of it together, it’s a pretty alarming attack on access to the ballot and the ability for average Montanans to participate in democracy,” Abbott said.
Get-out-the-vote groups like Forward Montana, MontPIRG and Western Native Voice say the measures will particularly impact low-income voters and people of color.
Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.