Montana secretary of state elections supervisor Stuart Fuller (left) guides canvassers Patrick Beddow, Melissa Schlichting and Tara Boulanger as they conduct the state’s 2020 election canvas. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

HELENA — Montana’s 2020 election came to its anticlimactic-but-official end in a mostly empty hearing room Monday as the state Board of Canvassers met in the state Capitol to certify official vote counts.

The three-person board, composed of staffers representing Montana’s attorney general, superintendent of public instruction and state auditor, spent more than six hours reviewing vote tallies county by county, guided by a handful of staff from the Montana secretary of state’s office and observed by an audience of two reporters.

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, Montana’s top election official, ducked into the canvassers’ meeting for a few minutes mid-morning, coffee mug in hand.

“Doing the Lord’s work I see. Really good work,” he said.

The results of Montana’s election, held Nov. 3, have been clear for weeks. The Associated Press, a national news organization that has made unofficial election calls for more than a century, called Montana’s three electoral votes for President Donald Trump at 10:20 p.m. on Election Night. Democratic candidate for governor Mike Cooney conceded the race to his Republican opponent, Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte, in the wee hours of Nov. 4. So did incumbent Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat who acknowledged he had been unsuccessful in his bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Steve Daines.

One state Senate race remains close enough to allow for a potential recount: Senate District 28, representing Jefferson County and part of Butte, where incumbent Sen. Edie McClafferty, is 57 votes ahead of challenger Jim Buterbaugh, according to the vote count that was certified Monday. State law gives Buterbaugh five days after Monday’s canvas to ask for a recount, though the Boulder Monitor reported Nov. 16 that Buterbaugh has decided against making that request.

With other races for all intents and purposes already decided, Nov. 3’s winners have begun the process of preparing to govern. Gianforte has begun assembling his administration. Montana lawmakers met Nov. 18 to elect the leaders who will preside over the 2021 legislative session. The Montana Democratic Party, which saw its field of candidates swept by Republicans in statewide races for the first time this century, is off to lick its wounds.

Monday’s meeting, though, was the last step of the legal process whereby county and state election administrators confirmed the accuracy of Montana’s vote tally, verifying that Montanans’ votes were counted accurately and turning the preliminary tallies first published Election Night into official numbers for the history books.

While Montana’s vote certification concluded as a matter of course this year, the equivalent processes in presidential battleground states like Michigan, Georgia and Arizona have drawn national scrutiny as President Trump sought to cast doubt on the legitimacy of his loss to President-elect Joe Biden. The president has made sweeping claims about widespread voter fraud in those and other states, but his attorneys haven’t been able to present state and federal courts with persuasive evidence supporting those allegations.

Montana’s elections are administered at the county level, with county election offices responsible for registering voters, running local polls and tabulating results. While the state board of canvassers provides counties a list of precincts and races to audit — randomly selected by rolling dice at a prior meeting — local officials are also responsible for verifying their own vote counts. County boards of canvassers, usually composed of county commissioners, have 14 days after an election to meet and certify their numbers.

The state board of canvassers then checks that the certified numbers reported by each of Montana’s 56 counties match the figures the secretary of state’s office has compiled in its central database. That state canvass consumed the bulk of Monday for this year’s three canvassers — Patrick Beddow, who represented Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen; Melissa Schlichting, who represented Attorney General Tim Fox; and Tara Boulanger, who represented State Auditor Matt Rosendale.

From 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., pausing for a Domino’s pizza lunch break, the canvassers painstakingly read vote tallies for each county and candidate race by race, checking each number for discrepancies between state and county records.

Blaine County, for example, had 4,173 voters registered and 3,171 ballots cast, Beddow read early in the meeting.

“For President, we have Biden at 1,589, Jorgenson, 59, and Trump, 1,468,” he said, pausing as his fellow canvassers noted a slip of the tongue. “1,469 — I’m sorry.”

And so on down the ballot, through the U.S. House and Senate races to governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state auditor, superintendent of public instruction, Montana Supreme Court justices, Public Service Commissioners, state legislators and ballot measures. And then the board moved onto its next county, working alphabetically from Beaverhead to Yellowstone.

As the canvas drew to a close, Stapleton returned to the meeting to thank the somewhat exhausted board for its efforts and add his own signature to the state’s official certification documents, which he then photographed with his phone to post to Twitter

“Tedious isn’t it? But very much appreciated,” Stapleton told the canvassers. 

“One of the necessary evils,” Beddow quipped.

“It’s not evil,” Stapleton quipped back. “It’s democracy.”

Now-official vote counts are available through the Secretary of State’s website at electionresults.mt.gov.

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.