Tuesday, December 05, 2023

Last-minute election law changes and scattered ballot errors punctuate an otherwise smooth, slow primary election in Montana

by ALEX SAKARIASSEN Montana Free Press
| June 9, 2022 8:40 AM

Some of Montana’s most anticipated 2022 primary races have already been called, but in Lincoln County, the counting continues.

According to a public statement emailed by clerk and recorder Robin Benson, a physical error on the county’s absentee ballots necessitated a hand-count of every single primary ballot cast in the county. The error — a misplaced perforation on the ballot stubs — rendered them incapable of being read by the ES&S-manufactured tabulator machines that are standard across much of Montana. Benson’s statement added that the ballots used at the polls did not have the same error, but will be hand-counted alongside the absentee ballots.

“After weighing all options, considering best practices, receiving a legal opinion from the [Montana] Secretary of State’s office, and in an effort to maintain election integrity, Lincoln County decided to conduct a hand-count of all ballots, rather than hand-count absentees and tabulate the poll ballots,” the statement read.

Lincoln County expects to complete the hand-count of absentee ballots by 7 p.m. Wednesday, at which point it will proceed with a count of the poll ballots. The entire process, according to the statement, is expected to take three days.

While primary races for Congress, the Montana Supreme Court and the Public Service Commission all attracted attention this week, the recent legal back-and-forth over changes to election administration laws has heightened Montanans’ focus on the process itself. Laws eliminating Election Day voter registration and revising voter identification requirements were blocked in Yellowstone County District Court in March, before being abruptly reinstated by the Montana Supreme Court just weeks before Tuesday’s election. State and county election officials and the media scrambled to update voters on what was or wasn’t in effect, while elsewhere, ongoing debates about voter fraud and election integrity prompted Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan to inform lawmakers of his deep-seated concerns for the safety of local election employees and volunteers.

In regards to Lincoln County, Sen. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, told Montana Free Press in an interview Wednesday that he had monitored the count at different times over the past 24 hours. He described seeing five or six teams of three individuals reviewing the ballots — one reading off the votes and two maintaining separate tabulations of those votes, with the latter halting after every fifth ballot to compare and confirm their counts. Cuffe acknowledged that the process is “probably slower than everybody would like,” but added that it’s “better to be slow and careful.”

“Thank God we were not having to do voter registration at the same time [we were] trying to organize all this extra stuff,” Cuffe said.

Cuffe was a strong proponent of new changes to election administration laws during the 2021 Montana Legislature. He carried the House bill ending Election Day voter registration in the Senate when it passed between chambers, and sponsored the bill rewriting Montana’s voter identification requirements. He said he sees that hand-count as a “positive thing” that will provide Montana lawmakers interested in additional changes to the election process with real data on the time, resources and cost necessary to conduct such counts.

Due to a ballot-proofing error in Missoula County, two races for local Republican Party precinct captains were left off the ballot entirely on Tuesday. Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman said the situation came to his office’s attention Monday when the spouse of one of the candidates called to report that the race between Mike Hopkins and Nick Taber for the GOP’s Lewis and Clark 90 West precinct had not appeared on her ballot. On Tuesday morning, Seaman told MTFP that his staff had discovered a second race, one for Republican precinct captain in the Hellgate 96 East precinct, had also been inadvertently omitted.

“We could not come up with a good remedy between the time we were notified and the end of the election on Tuesday,” Seaman said.

Seaman added that his office is “owning up to our mistake” and has contacted both the Missoula County Attorney’s office and Missoula County Republican Party Chair Vondene Kopetski to explore possible remedies. The nature of the elections, conducted by the county in certain precincts on the party’s behalf, makes it tough to do a blanket mailer, Seaman added, but his office should have several options to present to Kopetski by the end of the week, and is also discussing ways to prevent such incidents from occurring again in the future.

The incidents in Lincoln and Missoula counties aside, local election officials around the state said they experienced little to no friction in Tuesday’s primary. Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore told MTFP that her office did have to turn away a few would-be voters due to the elimination of Election Day registration, and she confirmed an account mentioned on Twitter involving an individual being asked to remove a Make America Great Again hat before entering a polling location in Great Falls. According to Moore, the county had determined the slogan to be campaign information, which state law prohibits a person from wearing inside a polling place.

“The gentleman was asked to remove his hat, he exchanged words with the [Cascade County Sheriff’s] deputies, they escorted him out the door, there was a brief discussion, and then they all shook hands and he put his hat in the car,” Moore wrote via email. “It was really not a big deal.”

Overall, Moore said, the day “went very smoothly” and her staff were able to leave the county election facility at 3 a.m. Lewis and Clark County Elections Supervisor Connor Fitzpatrick painted a similar picture in Helena, noting that while his office did experience some printer issues Monday night that affected preparation, nothing “terribly crazy” had occurred by late afternoon Tuesday.

“The [election] judges have been great about explaining things to the voters when they have questions and everything I’ve heard has had them doing a great job,” Fitzpatrick wrote via email a few hours before the polls closed. “We have not had any security issues thus far in the day, and have no reason to believe that will not continue.”

Fitzpatrick’s assessment aligned with an observation shared with MTFP via Twitter Tuesday night by Bowen Greenwood, clerk of the Montana Supreme Court: "My polling place at East Helena city hall was smooth and efficient, zero troubles, light traffic, friendly election workers."

In Gallatin County, clerk and recorder Eric Semerad characterized turnout in Tuesday’s primary as “amazingly low” and the pace of activity at polling locations around Bozeman as “very slow.” Semerad said he did witness at least one incident of an individual being turned away after the voter registration deadline on Monday, but added that the more common occurrence was non-absentee voters showing up at the polls “irate” that their ballots hadn’t come in the mail — a situation Semerad attributed to elections being conducted by mail in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We had to tell them, ‘You’re a poll voter,’” Semerad said. “They’d forgotten.”

Semerad also noted that Gallatin County rejected 550 ballots due to absentee voters completing both party primary ballots.

Toole County Clerk and Recorder Treva Nelson also reported a calm election on the administration front along the Hi-Line. A few people did call her office Tuesday asking about registration, she said, but no one complained when informed that the registration period was closed.

“It was very quiet,” Nelson continued. “We were out the door at 10:30.”

Those scattered reports echo how Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office characterized the primary. Spokesperson Richie Melby told MTFP Wednesday that the state agency’s phones were “noticeably less busy than previous years” and that “feedback from voters, candidates, and election officials has been positive.”

“We have not been made aware of any voter confusion regarding registration or identification, but rather heard from voters at the polls who were happy to provide identification,” Melby wrote via email. “Polling place workers also discussed the ‘smooth process’ with both in-person voters casting their ballot and absentee voters returning theirs.”

Nelson largely attributed that lack of confusion, at least in Toole County, to a robust advertising campaign her office undertook to inform voters of the latest legal changes resulting from the Montana Supreme Court’s May order. The county placed ads in local newspapers and posted messages to social media, Nelson said, and Nelson herself went on the radio twice in the lead-up to the primary. As a result, the back-and-forth didn’t impact election officials and voters alone. Nelson stressed that the pre-primary messaging — as well as a first round of ads necessitated by the district court striking down the laws in March — came at the expense of local taxpayers.

“We all just want to do our jobs to the best of our ability,” Nelson said. “The short-notice changes make it even harder for us to give the public the best results”

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