Sen. Pat Colbeck
Former Republican Michigan state Sen. Pat Colbeck discusses his allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election with Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, during a meeting of the "ad hoc election integrity committee" in Helena Tuesday. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / MTFP

On Tuesday, a group of Republican state lawmakers identifying themselves as an “ad hoc election integrity committee” convened at a hotel in downtown Helena to hear presentations and public comment questioning the security of Montana’s elections. One of those lawmakers, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, told Montana Free Press that the meeting, which was not a legislatively sponsored event, was designed to collect public comment on an issue legislative leadership and other elected officials have declined to address. 

“This enabled our citizens to talk to us and share their election experiences with us,” Manzella said. “It gave us an opportunity to get it on film and archived that can be shared again and again and again. It gets our message out to those who want to hear it and view it.”

The meeting, which was attended by several dozen people throughout the day and largely moderated by Manzella, revolved around allegations and information already widely circulated in the state by critics of the 2020 election and repeatedly refuted as baseless by scores of elected officials and political scientists across the country. Multiple presenters and public commenters frequently called for a full investigation of Montana’s 2020 election results, an audit of the state’s election processes, and a move to exclusively non-electronic, in-person voting statewide. 

Manzella emphasized the importance of lobbying state lawmakers and legislative candidates to take action on the issue.

“You must engage with your legislators and your legislative candidates,” Manzella said. “You have to put the pressure on.”

A poster advertising the election integrity hearing.

Manzella told MTFP that the event space and audio-video costs were paid for by the America Project, a Florida-based nonprofit that describes its mission as “building a support network of and for pro-freedom organizations, businesses, and individuals to empower and embolden them to stand up for America.”

The other lawmakers at the table were Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, Rep. Steve Galloway, R-Great Falls, and Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle, all of whom attended a “cyber symposium” in South Dakota last fall hosted by 2020 election critic Mike Lindell. A flyer advertising the event also listed Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, Rep. Paul Fielder, R-Thompson Falls, and Rep. Gordon Vance, R-Belgrade, as committee members. Fielder and Vance did not attend, but Tschida was present via Zoom. He previously spearheaded a citizen count of voter affirmation envelopes in Missoula County that continues to fuel allegations of a discrepancy in the county’s 2020 election results.

Another participant in that effort, former Missoula City Council member Lynn Hellegaard, offered an extensive account Tuesday of the claims she, Tschida and others have leveled against the Missoula County Elections Office. She also addressed a more recent development: the Missoula County Republican Party’s plan to recount the affirmation envelopes she and others initially accessed and counted in January 2020. Hellegaard speculated that one possible reason for the party’s envelope-recount plan was to “discredit our work.”

“I say that because the person heading this recount has said at many meetings that there is no voter fraud in Montana,” Hellegaard said, referencing Missoula Republican Party Chair Vondene Kopetski. “She asked us to stop our work because she thought that it was discouraging people from voting.”

Kopetski told Montana Free Press this week that her recount is intended to respond to diminishing faith among voters that their votes count and put the allegations made by Hellegaard, Tschida and others “to bed” one way or another. 

“You must engage with your legislators and your legislative candidates. You have to put the pressure on.”

State Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville

Among the day’s presenters was Patrick Colbeck, a former Republican Michigan state senator who has appeared nationwide perpetuating unsubstantiated claims of mass fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Colbeck now works as a policy adviser for the Election Integrity Fund, a nonprofit that recruited volunteers to go door to door in Michigan last year in an attempt to uncover evidence of voter fraud. Standing in front of a large poster titled “The 2020 Coup,” he painted a picture of an orchestrated and layered attack on the national election process executed in part through the use of rigged voting machines, and screened a trailer for a film he said he’s making to document his allegations.

“Before you can win in the courts, you have to win in the court of public opinion, which means we’re in an information war,” Colbeck said. “We have to get this out in the public forum.”

Last year, the Colorado-based election technology firm Dominion Voting Systems sent a letter to Colbeck demanding he retract false statements about the company stealing the 2020 election from former President Donald Trump. The letter accused Colbeck of “knowingly sowing discord in our democracy” while soliciting money for his public appearances. Prior to his presentation in Helena Tuesday, Colbeck was asked by Manzella to say if he was being paid to attend. He said he was not.

Colbeck encouraged Montanans to not “outsource election integrity” to the federal government or private vendors, and argued in favor of manual elections over elections reliant on electronic equipment. 

“If all else fails, vote Amish,” he said, repeating a characterization of paper-only voting that Manzella had introduced earlier in the day.

Another argument repeated throughout the event asserted a need to more thoroughly and regularly update Montana’s database of registered voters. Lawmakers and public commenters claimed anecdotal knowledge of ballots being sent to voters at multiple addresses or to deceased voters, situations they said could open the door to fraudulent voting. A bill requiring counties to update those voter rolls annually was passed last session, with Tschida citing his Missoula County allegations in support of the bill on the House floor. 

Other suggestions offered by presenters included requiring voter thumbprints in addition to signatures on mail-in ballots, establishing a new division within the state Attorney General’s Office dedicated solely to investigating voter fraud, and switching to a new brand of paper ballot with security features such as watermarks and serial codes voters could use to verify the accurate counting of their vote. Phalen also floated the idea of requiring Montanans to re-register to vote prior to every election.

“That doesn’t seem to be a huge task to me,” Phalen said. “We go sign up for a hunting license and a lot of other things on an annual basis.”

Montana Public Service Commissioner Randy Pinocci stepped to the lectern as well to share several anecdotal accounts of voter fraud he claimed occurred when he was working for the campaign of former Republican U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns. Pinocci suggested that fraud accounted for Burns’ loss to Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, in 2006.

The committee distributed a pamphlet that originated with the John Birch Society, a national conservative advocacy organization, titled “9 Ways to Restore America’s Elections.” Among the listed recommendations were abolishing same-day voter registration, implementing additional voter ID regulations, and banning the collection and delivery of ballots by third parties. The Montana Legislature last year eliminated Election Day registration, enacted stricter voter identification requirements, and prohibited paid ballot collection in the state.

Rep. Steve Gist, R-Great Falls, Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, and Rep. Lola Sheldon-Galloway, R-Great Falls, were present in the audience Tuesday. They, along with the ad hoc committee’s members, were among 89 Republican legislators who signed a letter last fall asking legislative leadership to establish a special select committee to probe Montana’s 2020 election. Legislative leaders have taken no action on that request. The creation of a select committee would likely require a special session of the Montana Legislature. 

Manzella said Tuesday that a special session is the only way to implement additional changes to state election laws ahead of the 2022 election, but that lawmaker support for such a session does not appear to be strong. One member of the audience asked whether Gov. Greg Gianforte had the power to call a special legislative session himself.

“I think you should call him and ask him,” Galloway replied.

Gianforte has that authority under state law. Manzella told MTFP she sent a letter to his office this month requesting he call a special session. She said she has not yet received a response.

In closing out the meeting, Rep. Steve Galloway challenged the notion that a special session would be prohibitively costly, noting that the 2021 legislative session ended 10 days early, and that those days are “sitting in the coffers” should the Legislature decide to reconvene. He and other members of the committee urged attendees to contact their legislators and to get involved, with Galloway choking up as he mentioned a grassroots canvassing effort in Cascade County as an example voters across the state should heed.

“Don’t back off,” Galloway said.

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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...