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

State lawmakers, county election administrators and the Montana Association of Counties have established an unpublicized informal workgroup to examine Montana’s current election processes and discuss opportunities to enhance the election system ahead of the next legislative session.

The group has met twice to date, most recently in late April, and has grown to include Republican and Democratic legislators from both chambers, as well as a representative from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office and Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, whose office shares oversight of certain election and voter fraud matters with Jacobsen. The unpublicized effort was jump-started early this year by Rep. Steve Gist, R-Great Falls. Gist said in an interview that he approached MACO — which serves as a liaison between state officials and county governments — in January to discuss voter confidence and the tenor of election-centric debates at the national level.

“We want to talk about just what goes on in Montana and how do we increase voter confidence, because a lot of people don’t know how the voting system works, and a lot of legislators don’t,” Gist said. “Even I came away with more knowledge after our first in-person meeting [in April] of how things work.”

Five other lawmakers have joined the workgroup, including Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, and Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, both of whom serve on the Legislature’s interim State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, which has oversight of several state agencies including the secretary of state’s and commissioner of political practices’ offices. MACO serves as a coordinator for the group and has hired Dan Clark, director of Montana State University’s Local Government Center, to facilitate. MACO Executive Director Eric Bryson told Montana Free Press via email that the group’s primary goal is to solicit suggestions for improving Montana’s election system from a “wider audience.”

“I don’t have a predetermined outcome,” Bryson said, “but our goal is to share information, educate ourselves on the issues and be ready for solutions in advance of the next legislative session.”

Election administration has become a topic of considerable debate in Montana over the past year. The Montana Democratic Party and a coalition of Indigenous rights and voter advocacy groups are currently waging a pitched legal battle against the state over new laws passed by Republicans in the 2021 Legislature, and a district court judge in Yellowstone County issued an order last month blocking most of those changes as litigation continues. Meanwhile, a group of Republican lawmakers critical of the 2020 presidential election has repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity of Montana’s voting procedures, launching an unsuccessful attempt in April to convene a special legislative session to establish a committee to investigate their concerns.

“It’s just getting to the point where our officials feel threatened and intimidated and concerned that their workplace may not be safe, and that’s not how we want our election officials to feel.”

Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan

According to interviews with multiple members of the new election processes workgroup, their intent is to steer clear of the partisan fray and focus on gathering facts about how Montana elections are conducted. In doing so, the group’s members hope to gain a better understanding of how that process is working and what steps can be taken to improve it.

“We’re looking forward, for positive, workable, practical solutions that can either be enacted into law in the next session or are potential enhancements to rules that are promulgated by the secretary of state,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, a member of the workgroup. Bedey added that any potential proposals arising from the group’s discussions should serve to “enhance our already excellent election system.”

The agenda for the group’s meeting last month hit on nearly every facet of that system, from voter registration and pre-election certification of equipment to the post-election audit process and current penalties for fraudulent voter practices. Speaking for himself, Bedey said he hopes the group can take a more thorough look at the audit process in subsequent meetings, with an eye toward establishing whether it generates enough randomized sampling of precinct results to detect any problems or interference.

One of Mangan’s top priorities for the workgroup, and an issue he described as time-sensitive given the upcoming primary and general elections, is safety and security for county election staff. According to a nationwide poll conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice earlier this year, one in six surveyed local election officials had fielded threats related to their jobs, and 77% said they felt those threats had increased in recent years. Mangan said his office has heard similar concerns from county election officials in Montana, and has already worked with some counties to develop safety plans.

“It’s just getting to the point where our officials feel threatened and intimidated and concerned that their workplace may not be safe,” he said, “and that’s not how we want our election officials to feel.”

Mangan added that in responding to such concerns, his office has coordinated not just with county election officials, but also with county attorneys and sheriffs departments, and he’d like to see the Montana County Attorneys’ Association and Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association pulled into the workgroup’s future discussions in a similar manner.

Ellis said the group’s focus on the internal workings of Montana’s election system is an important educational opportunity, both for the entities involved and for the public they share information with. She noted that members will have a chance at the group’s next meeting to learn more about the state’s vote tabulation machines directly from ES&S, the private contractor that manufactures them. One allegation that’s been voiced by election critics — and repeatedly refuted by county and state officials — is that those machines can be accessed wirelessly. Ellis acknowledged that information to the contrary isn’t likely to convince everyone. But, she said, such confirmation can help dispel misinformation and can, if she’s reelected to the state Senate this fall, leave her better equipped to debate election-related legislation in 2023.

“I know the better that I am informed, the more I know how to react, which is what you do during the Legislature a little bit, to issues and sort through myths versus truths, facts versus non-facts,” Ellis said.

Among the attendees of the workgroup’s meeting last month were six county election administrators from a mix of rural and urban corners of Montana and Dana Corson, director of elections and voter services at the secretary of state’s office. Contacted for comment Friday about the specific issues or broader goals Jacobsen hoped to address through her office’s involvement, spokesperson Richie Melby sent the following statement: 

“The Secretary of State has traveled around the state to visit county election officials in their local communities. The Secretary is dedicated to making Montana elections the best in the nation. For good reason, the Secretary of State should have a seat at the table to discuss ideas to ensure Montana’s elections are secure, accessible and soundly administered by all 56 counties.”

latest stories

Looking for workers

Despite Montana’s unemployment rate of 2.8% as of August and an above-average labor force participation, Montana’s workforce can’t keep up with the sheer number of unfilled jobs. In Missoula, that means a battle to attract employees.

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...