Lawmaker continues to press Missoula County election allegations
The dome of the Montana Capitol in Helena is seen in this file photo. (Eliza Wiley/Montana Free Press)
| July 21, 2021 11:00 AM
Four months have passed since allegations of voting irregularities in Missoula County's 2020 election made their way to the floor of the Montana House. But according to documents produced in response to a public records request by the Montana Free Press, Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, is continuing to press Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to conduct a full investigation of what he claims was a "debacle" of an election last fall.
Those same records indicate Jacobsen has not engaged with Tschida on the issue.
"I will not relent on my mission to clear up these suspicious actions in Missoula until I either hear that some action is to be taken by the SOS office or that a refusal to take action is offered," Tschida wrote in a June 25 email to Jacobsen.
The Montana Free Press filed a public records request with Jacobsen's office on April 22 asking for any and all electronic exchanges between Jacobsen, her staff and a group of Missoula Republicans headed by Tschida who have spurred debate over the county's 2020 election results.
Those records were delivered July 20 and reveal that Tschida has not given up his "mission" in the months since the Legislature ended. He emailed Jacobsen and her staff several times throughout June and July asking for information about county authority to conduct elections by mail and reiterating his demand that Jacobsen acknowledge the validity of his claims.
"Your lack of comment on this matter, not only to me but to the countless persons with whom I've discussed this, is a resounding position of indifference on your part to this situation, in terms of making the next right and proper decision," he wrote in a July 6 email.
Tschida's group, which has since dubbed itself the Missoula County Election Integrity Project, conducted a hand count in January of the envelopes that contained mail-in ballots in last November's election.
Based on their count, the group alleged that Missoula County reported 4,952 more votes than the number of envelopes received — a discrepancy Tschida alluded to in March while testifying on the House floor in favor of a bill requiring election officials to update voter rolls every year. The bill passed the Legislature on party lines and was signed into law in April.
Lynn Hellegaard, a former Missoula City Council member and member of Tschida's group, told the Montana Free Press this spring that supporting changes to state election laws was one of the group's goals.
THE MISSOULA situation even caught the attention of former President Donald Trump last month. During a speech in Ohio, Trump claimed that evidence proving the legitimacy of mail-in ballots in several Montana counties was "missing." The secretary of state's office responded by stating that it was unaware of any counties reporting missing absentee ballots. Tschida mentioned Trump's comment in his July 6 email to Jacobsen to bolster his argument for her intervention in Missoula County.
Missoula County Election Administrator Bradley Seaman has repeatedly refuted Tschida's claims, attributing any discrepancy to the group's unverified counting method and defending the procedures his office used to conduct the 2020 election. He has also pointed out that Missoula County's election results were certified by Jacobsen's office without dispute in November.
Speaking with the Montana Free Press Tuesday, Seaman said his office has received eight records requests from Tschida and his attorney, Quentin Rhoades, since May 21 seeking additional election documents. Some of those records requests have yet to be fulfilled, in one case because fulfillment requires a court order, and in others, Seaman said, due to outstanding invoices.
Seaman added that none of the allegations or records requests have translated into a lawsuit — a development Seaman said he would welcome, as he's confident a judge would find no cause for a legal challenge.
"These are serious allegations, and yet they haven't contested the results of the election," Seaman said. "So we can only assume there's no merit behind those allegations."
Tschida told the Montana Free Press Tuesday that he has no specific time in mind at which he plans to file a lawsuit, but he has not ruled out the possibility.
"We don't feel like that's the right recourse, because we should be solving this thing without bringing the legal system into play," Tschida said. "But if that's what we have to do, we will."
JACOBSEN HAS not commented publicly on Tschida's claims, though she did release a public letter in April outlining changes to Montana election policies that she said would help "protect the integrity of our elections." According to the records obtained by the Montana Free Press, her office has not responded to Tschida's repeated messages except to answer specific questions about Montana law.
In addition to his requests for a secretary of state investigation or formal opinion, Tschida has brought new allegations to Jacobsen's attention, including a claim that 10,712 Missoula County voters were sent mail-in ballots in 2020 despite not having voted in the 2016 or 2018 elections.
Those voters should have been "scrubbed from the rolls by 2018," Tschida wrote, citing a Montana law specifying that failure to cast a ballot in two consecutive federal elections shall result in the cancellation of a voter's registration.
That law also states that a voter must fail to respond to confirmation mailings and be placed on the inactive voter list before cancellation is required. Tschida did not mention those contributing provisions in his email to Jacobsen or provide information about whether the 10,712 "stale electors" his group claims to have discovered met those conditions as well.
Tschida told the Montana Free Press he's requested that information as part of one of the dozen records requests he's filed with Missoula County since last fall.
IN EARLY June, Tschida emailed Jacobsen requesting receipts from 30 Montana counties he claimed received money from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg through the national nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). The organization, backed in part by a $350 million donation from Zuckerberg, awarded grants to county governments across the nation last year to assist with pandemic-induced election adjustments.
A preliminary list of grant recipients on CTCL's website shows 28 Montana counties received funding from the initiative, including Missoula County. Conservative media websites including Real Clear Investigations, which published an article on Tschida's Missoula County allegations in March, claimed the grant money allowed progressive groups to influence election procedures across the country in favor of Democratic candidates.
Tschida included a link to one such article in his email to Jacobsen. Jacobsen responded that her office did not have the records Tschida requested.
As Tschida continues to press the Missoula County Election Integrity Project's cause, Seaman fears the debate will serve only to erode public trust in the election process. He wants Jacobsen's office to partner with his office to educate voters about the practices that are already ensuring the integrity of Montana's elections.
"We ran a 100% transparent election" in 2020, Seaman said. "We did that following all the policies and procedures in the law."
Tschida counters that there remain questions the Missoula County Elections Office "refuses to answer. And until they answer them to the satisfaction of the average person in Missoula County and in Montana, we're going to have to pursue this."