In mid-August, the Montana Daily Gazette, which describes itself as providing “news coverage from a conservative and Christian worldview” and regularly publishes posts forwarding concerns about election integrity, posted the headline “Breaking: Jacobsen Will Advise Counties to Halt Voting Machine Updates to Prevent Fraud,” writing that Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen “will advise counties in Montana to halt voting machine updates in an attempt to prevent data from being erased during said updates.” That information was attributed without quotation to Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, and Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula. The post framed the halt as a matter of preserving data from past elections in order to comply with state and federal retention requirements.

In response to a list of emailed questions last week, SOS spokesperson Richie Melby stated that Jacobsen’s office has not advised counties to halt the updating of voting machines. When Montana Free Press asked whether Jacobsen plans to issue such guidance in the future, Melby replied, in full, “The Secretary of State’s office plans to follow the law.”

Montana Secretary od State Christi Jacobsen
Christi Jacobsen Credit: Ballotpedia

Pressed for clarification last week, Melby reiterated that Jacobsen has not advised counties to halt their updates, which are routinely performed ahead of an election such as upcoming fall municipal elections to prepare the machines for new ballots, and referenced Montana law addressing voting systems that codifies the secretary’s approval of those systems and the preparation process for their use. MTFP again requested direct comment on the accuracy of the statement attributed to Tschida and Manzella. Melby replied, “The Secretary of State will continue to advise and provide guidance to counties to comply with existing election law, including laws related to machines and updates to their software.”

Reached by phone, Manzella said she and Tschida participated in a mid-August conference call with Jacobsen to express concerns raised during Manzella and Tschida’s attendance at a cybersecurity symposium in South Dakota earlier this month hosted by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. Those concerns were also presented in an Aug. 13 open letter from Tschida to Jacobsen, also published by the Daily Gazette, urging her to halt voting machine updates until counties can “capture a ‘Forensic Image’ of the software prior to updates.” Manzella added that Tschida was disconnected early from the conference call, but that Jacobsen subsequently said she would respond to their concerns. 

Manzella also said she received a text message from Jacobsen “on or about Aug. 14” stating that county election offices would not be performing software updates on voting machines during the following week and that all voting machines are currently “locked away.” 

“It had something to do with the counties were not doing software upgrades next week at all, all machines were locked away. So, again, there wasn’t a definitive statement saying, ‘We’re going to issue this.’”

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula

“That’s what she said by text,” Manzella said. “Now, in my conversation with her, my understanding was that she would honor Brad’s letter.”

Manzella declined to provide a copy of the text message to MTFP. 

“I don’t think that would be appropriate,” she said. “But if push comes to shove, I’ll have it.”

Informed that Jacobsen’s office told MTFP no such guidance has been issued, Manzella said she’d heard that same information from an “election administrator” and added, “I’m a little disappointed in that.”

In an interview, Tschida, who has raised questions about alleged 2020 voting irregularities in Missoula County, repeated the concerns documented in his letter and went into further detail about the election information he fears will be lost if voting machines are updated. He said Jacobsen never told him directly that she was going to halt the updates, but that he is aware of correspondence on the issue between Jacobsen and Manzella.

Missoula State Rep. Brad Tschida
Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, speaks about election integrity on the House floor March 17, 2021. Credit: Montana Public Affairs Network

“It had something to do with the counties were not doing software upgrades [the following week] at all, all machines were locked away,” Tschida said. “So, again, there wasn’t a definitive statement saying, ‘We’re going to issue this [guidance to halt].’”

However, Tschida continued, given Jacobsen’s responsibility to ensure election integrity and retain election information, it would seem like “a plausible extension” of that responsibility to alert county election officials to the issue and halt any updates.

“The natural extension was that there would be some communication so that they preserved that information,” Tschida said. “But there was nothing definitive that came to me from the Secretary of State’s office unless I missed something. And I’ll go back and look through any emails I had, but I don’t recall there being a direct commitment to doing that.”

MTFP contacted election officials in Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Teton, Flathead and Yellowstone counties to ask if they had been advised by Jacobsen to halt software updates of voting machines. All confirmed they have received no such directive.

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...