Missoula County Election Center
With election procedures continuing to drive debate across Montana and the nation, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, state and county election officials and the Montana Association of Counties is examining how the system currently works and what practical improvements its members could bring to the 2023 Legislature. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

MISSOULA — A pair of American flag balloons hovered over a plastic bin marked “ballot drop box” Saturday morning as Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman logged into Instagram. At 11 a.m. sharp, the voice of former state Sen. Bryce Bennett echoed through the entryway of the county’s election center, welcoming Seaman to a social media event promoting early voting.

“We’ve got the background up, we’ve got the Lizzo popping, we are feeling good about Vote Early Day,” Bennett said, citing the national movement for which he now serves as project director. “People are celebrating, people are voting, and that is the most exciting thing.”

Seaman proceeded to walk viewers through his office’s operation, from the cavernous building off Russell Street, south of the Clark Fork, where a trickle of voters were dropping off ballots to the small second-floor room next door where those ballots are sorted. The two spoke at length about the importance of every ballot being counted, with Seaman saying the best way to ensure that they are is “not to wait.” 

Saturday was the first day Missoula voters could drop off ballots in-person for the city’s 2021 municipal election, and marked the beginning of a slate of extended election center hours that Seaman and his staff have rolled out in advance of Election Day on Nov. 2. 

As Seaman walked the grounds on Instagram, Missoula resident Steve Hoffmann worked with Seaman’s staff to update his voter registration. He’d recently moved into the city limits from the county, he told Montana Free Press, and hadn’t had time to change his address yet. Travis Anklam was in the same boat, having not had time to change his address in the voter database during normal business hours due to his work schedule. Both updated their information and cast their ballots at a bank of shielded tables in the back of the center within 15 minutes of arriving.

“It couldn’t have gone smoother,” Hoffmann said. “Certainly being here early helps.”

Hoffmann added that he considered getting his registration updated ahead of the 2022 midterm elections a personal priority, “because there’s so much at stake.”

Seaman said the extended service hours his office has implemented this fall, along with his appearance on Vote Early Day’s Instagram event, are part of an effort to ease voter access and showcase the nuts and bolts of the voting process to anyone with questions about how it works. Some voters are unable to show up in-person to update their information on weekdays, he continued, and the Legislature’s passage this spring of House Bill 176 discontinued his office’s ability to provide registration and update services on Election Day. Under the new law, those activities are halted statewide at noon the Monday before the election. Even with the new extended hours, Seaman said he’s concerned the change will create issues for some voters.

“Losing 13 hours on Election Day, seven a.m. to eight p.m., can never really be made up, because some voters may not be aware of these extended hours, and may just know that Election Day is coming up on Tuesday the 2nd,” he said. “And so, unfortunately, there may be voters that slip through the cracks.”

At noon, Seaman shifted gears to a more detailed version of his Instagram walkthrough, gathering five members of the public for a guided tour of Missoula County’s ballot processing procedures. He led the way to the ballot sorting room, where two election workers were busy sifting through ballot envelopes picked up that morning from the post office. Envelopes for each of Missoula’s six city wards and for the surrounding county are sorted and bundled into stacks of 25, Seaman explained. They are also sorted based on how they were delivered — by mail, by drop-box, or via a drop-off location on Election Day — in order to track how they were received in the voter database.

“This helped our accuracy really improve, because what we’ve done is, every ballot that comes in will have on there a unique barcode as well as a ballot style, and mirrors exactly what’s up there,” Seaman said, pointing to a wire shelf crowded with shallow boxes, each with a pink slip identifying a city ward.

Down the hall, Seaman led the group into a room where a pair of election workers were scanning barcodes and matching the signatures on affirmation envelopes against the voter signature contained in the county’s voter database. Seaman said this is the point where ballots are most often rejected, which may happen for one of three reasons: The envelope hasn’t been signed, the signature doesn’t match the database, or the voter was provisionally registered and didn’t provide identification. 

“Any time you send in a voter registration form, an absentee ballot request, we capture that signature and keep it, because signatures change,” Seaman said. “As you get older, your signature starts to get a little bit shakier and your letters may change. And we see the opposite. … my signature when I was 18 was fantastic, textbook, and it has been shortened drastically [since].”

Paper signs taped to the walls instruct election workers to have at least two people examine every possible rejection.

Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman conducts a public tour of the county’s ballot processing and security procedures Saturday, the first in a string of tours his office is offering this fall. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

One tour attendee, Rep. Kathy Whitman, D-Missoula, asked how Seaman’s office handles situations where two members of the same household accidentally mix up their ballots — a situation she said she’s experienced personally. Seaman said that such a ballot will be rejected and held pending clarification. The voter database includes signatures from the same household, he added, so that if the second ballot arrives later, his office can compare multiple signatures from the same household.

“This is critical because the No. 1 reason that we reject the ballot is what we refer to as a ‘household signature swap,’” he said.

If his office can confirm that such a swap occurred, both ballots can then be processed. Otherwise a voter whose ballot was rejected will be sent a letter notifying them that their signature did not match the database.

Seaman’s tour continued through the security measures taken to keep ballots protected after hours, the process for physically removing ballots from affirmation envelopes, and the sealing of those ballots in boxes in preparation for transport and counting by ballot machines. Both the ballots and the affirmation envelopes they’re sent in are retained separately after the election.

Seaman said the tour, which is one of a series his office is offering focused on different aspects of the election process, was in part designed to “combat misinformation.” Earlier this year, a group of local citizens led by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, raised allegations of voting irregularities in Missoula County’s 2020 election. Seaman said he hopes to counter those assertions by giving the public a chance to “see the accuracy of the process” firsthand.

“We’ve been battling a claim that there are affirmation envelopes missing,” he said. “And so this is a great opportunity for people to see the process and see how we track through and how we come up with our numbers that are certified and reported out to the Secretary of State and then certified again at that level.”

No one associated with Tschida’s Missoula County Election Integrity Project was present at Saturday’s tour. Attendees included Missoula City Council candidate Dori Gilels, former Rep. Todd Mowbray, D-Missoula, and Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula. Sands told MTFP that it’s “very dangerous to convince the public that their vote isn’t secure,” because that belief could discourage them from voting. 

“Democracy relies on every qualified person to cast a vote and to be secure in the belief that it’s going to be counted,” Sands said. “Undermining the authenticity of elections, it’s dangerous.”

Standing outside the election center after the tour’s conclusion, Gilels said she’s always had faith in the process. And from her experience knocking on doors this campaign cycle, she hasn’t seen anything to indicate that voter concern about ballot security is widespread in Missoula.

“Only a few maybe have asked about it, or a few have indicated they are going to physically bring their ballot here because they want to make sure it arrives,” Gilels said. “I haven’t had a lot of people in Missoula questioning the process, but I think nonetheless, the more communicative and transparent we can be, the better.”

The next public tour offered by the Missoula County Elections Office will be at 9:45 a.m. Oct. 26, when attendees will be able to observe staff as they test the tabulating machines used to count ballots. 

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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...