Credit: Eliza Wiley/MTFP

Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen issued a letter this afternoon outlining a list of ways in which her office will “protect the integrity of elections” in the state. The letter does not explicitly mention recent allegations by a group of Missoula residents including Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, of voting irregularities in Missoula County’s 2020 election results, but it does reference a “discussion about voting irregularities across the country and recently in Montana.”

Asked by Montana Free Press whether the letter is a response to the Missoula County allegations, Richie Melby, communications director for the secretary of state’s office, said it was explicitly written as “an open letter to Montana.” Melby offered no comment beyond the contents of the letter.

Regardless, the changes and enhancements outlined in Jacobsen’s letter appear to line up with materials sought by the Missoula group, which also includes former Missoula City Council member Lyn Hellegaard. After conducting a count of mail-in ballot affirmation envelopes earlier this year, the group claimed to have found a 4,592-vote discrepancy in Missoula County’s fall 2020 election results. Tschida had filed a public records request seeking access to the envelopes, as well as video of Missoula County’s ballot processing and access to the ballots themselves. The video had been deleted in accordance with county practice before the request was filed, and the ballots could not be released without a court order. Members of the group said they were scheduled to meet with Jacobsen’s office to discuss their claims last week. Melby declined to confirm whether Jacobsen had in fact met with them.

In her letter, Jacobsen vows to improve election transparency through “video requirements and retention” and to explore changes that “would provide broader access to election materials outside of a court order.” She stated she would go about “evaluating and improving county processes and procedures related to envelopes and consider adopting and revising reporting requirements.” She also reiterated her support for Senate Bill 170, a measure that would require counties to update their active voter rolls every year.

“I know the importance of free and fair elections, those consisting of integrity and transparency,” Jacobsen wrote, “and while I believe that Montana already sets the standard across the country, I will strive to make the best even better.”

The claims made by Tschida and others prompted Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman to pen a letter of his own to Jacobsen last week. Seaman wrote that the allegations “do not have merit” and have “needlessly undermined confidence in the elections process.” He further entreated Jacobsen to work together to “restore Montana voters’ confidence in our elections” by educating the public on current policies.

“We’ve created a webpage detailing these procedures for Missoula County voters,” Seaman wrote, “and it would benefit voters across the state for Missoula County to continue to collaborate with your office to provide education on how the policies and procedures currently in law ensure election integrity.”

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Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.