A Republican legislative candidate running for a seat in Jefferson County has been charged with a felony after allegedly falsifying his signature on a ballot for Jefferson High School Board of Trustees in order to “test the system,” according to court documents filed late last month. 

Jefferson County Attorney’ Steve Haddon charged House District 75 candidate Tim McKenrick with deceptive election practices, a felony carrying a maximum penalty of 10 years in state prison and a $50,000 fine, according to legal documents first reported by the Boulder Monitor Friday. He’s slated to appear before the Fifth Judicial District Court on June 29.

McKenrick is running in the HD75 Republican primary against incumbent Clancy-area Rep. Marta Bertoglio. The election is next Tuesday. 

McKenrick could not be reached for comment in time for publication Friday afternoon.

The charges allege that McKenrick used an altered version of his signature on his absentee ballot return envelope in an all-mail high school board of trustees election on May 3. McKenrick allegedly did so, the Monitor reported, on the same day that he told voters at a Monitor-hosted candidate forum that they wouldn’t be able to read his ballot signature, that there are “too many people that can forge really well” and that he “struggles” with mail-in ballots because “they’re too hard to keep 100% track of to know that the person [who] filled it out, sent it in.”

In mail-in elections, Montana voters must sign an affirmation on the ballot return envelope, providing a signature that must match previous signatures on file. State election law says a person who “knowingly causes a false statement, certificate, or return of any kind to be signed” is guilty of deceptive election practices. 

According to court documents filed to explain the charges, McKenrick drew the attention of election workers when, while dropping off his ballot, he remarked about a signature line on ballot envelopes affirming that voters know that “attempting to vote more than once or signing someone else’s name to this affirmation is a violation of Montana election laws” and that doing so “may” invalidate a person’s ballot. 

McKenrick said he felt the affirmation should use “shall” rather than “may” — in other words, that anyone who attempts to vote more than once or forge a signature “shall” see their ballot invalidated, according to the charging documents. 

“They have a signature here, when a ballot comes in, they check signature to signature to verify it. You wouldn’t be able to read mine, and I don’t understand how — I mean, there are too many people who can forge really really well.”

Tim McKenrick, House District 75 candidate, as quoted in charging documents 

His comments led an elections worker, Jefferson High School business manager Lori Carey, to double check his signature. Carey said she felt the signature on his return envelope didn’t match the signature he had previously used, and confirmed her suspicion with someone serving as an election judge, according to court documents. She raised the issue with Jefferson County elections chief Ginger Kunz, who provided additional copies of McKenrick’s signature that allegedly also didn’t resemble the signature on the envelope. 

The next day, Carey mailed McKenrick a ballot signature verification form — used in instances of a discrepancy, among others. He went to Jefferson High School on May 5, and allegedly told Carey that he intentionally altered his signature both so that it appeared more like the signature he used when he was younger as well as to ensure that election workers were doing their due diligence, noting that he would rather his vote be void “than … miss an opportunity to ‘test the system,’” charging documents read. 

He would go on to make a similar claim to Kunz, according to the documents. Kunz had McKenrick fill out the ballot signature verification form, which contains an affirmation declaring that the signature on the form is the same as the signature on the absentee ballot return envelope. He reiterated that the discrepancy in his signature was intentional, the documents say.

In doing so, McKenrick “knowingly engaged in deceptive election practices by causing a false statement and return to be signed and … made or presented a record or document knowing it to be false with the purpose that it be taken as genuine,” Haddon wrote.

McKenrick referenced a meeting he had about election security at the candidate forum, according to a recording provided to Montana Free Press by a Monitor reporter.

“Part of what I was told, and it kind of confuses me on this, is they check signatures,” McKenrick said at the forum. “They have a signature here, when a ballot comes in, they check signature to signature to verify it. You wouldn’t be able to read mine, and I don’t understand how — I mean, there are too many people who can forge really really well.”

Kunz directed questions about the charge to Haddon, who did not return a request for comment in time for publication. 

Bertoglio, McKenrick’s opponent in the primary, said trust and integrity should be paramount in an election.

“If our constituents are sending us to Helena to make law, then we need to respect the law, and that means following the law, quite frankly,” she said. 

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.