Republican central committees in Ravalli and Lewis and Clark counties have in the last two weeks passed near-identical resolutions that “reject” the results of the 2020 presidential election and claim Joe Biden “was not legitimately elected” to the presidency of the United States. The resolutions urge the Montana Legislature to do “everything in their power” to put “the responsibility of election integrity and accountability back into the hands of We the People.”
The resolutions come as a growing chorus of former advisers to Donald Trump have disclosed to a congressional committee their efforts to defuse the former president’s attempts to maintain power in late 2020, and mirror similar resolutions recently passed by the Texas Republican Party and local Republican committees in Maricopa County, Arizona, and Langlade County, Wisconsin.
Their debut in Montana comes on the eve of the Montana Republican Party’s platform convention in Billings this week, foreshadowing a potential topic of debate among conservatives who are already divided over whether the state’s current election processes are secure.
While both resolutions passed, not every precinct committee member was on board, with some citing fears of sowing division or unfairly casting doubt on Montana’s elections.
“What they are indicating that election fraud is, is not what occurs in Montana,” said Rep. Julie Dooling, a Republican from Helena and a precinct captain in the Lewis and Clark County central committee. Dooling was not present for the resolution vote this week. “It’s not how we tally votes,” she told Montana Free Press. “It’s now how we process our votes throughout the state.”
Though debates about election integrity have raged across the country for well over a year, a steady stream of political scientists, election analysts and elected officials have routinely stated that there is no evidence of widespread, orchestrated voter fraud during the 2020 election that could have reversed the results. In Montana, county election officials, state lawmakers and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen have similarly defended the security and integrity of Montana’s current election processes, and recently endeavored to counter repeated allegations and misinformation by establishing an informal workgroup to develop practical improvements to the existing system.
‘IT WAS A TOTAL AMBUSH’
According to two of its primary drafters, the resolution approved by the Ravalli County Republican Central Committee this month got its start during a late-June parking lot conversation among several committee members about pivoting from rhetoric to action on the issue of election integrity. As precinct captain Doug Bohn put it, Republicans in the Bitterroot Valley had seen multiple presentations on the topic over the past year, but “all we had accomplished was acknowledging there was an issue.”
Precinct captain Barb Parell said that during the conversation she mentioned the recent resolution in Texas and was asked to work up something similar.
“We just want to have a groundswell because it doesn’t seem like it’s ever going to come from the top,” Parell said.
Committee Chair Terry Nelson did not respond to messages seeking comment. But multiple eyewitness accounts of the resolution’s subsequent introduction at the committee’s July 5 meeting portray it as a hasty and contentious surprise, given that the proposal did not appear on the agenda ahead of time.
Precinct captain Tony Hudson recounted that the resolution was introduced by state Sen. Theresa Manzella, a Hamilton Republican and precinct captain who has helped spearhead the debate about election integrity in Montana, and by state committeeman Alan Lackey, an outspoken critic of local COVID-19 protocols who lost a Republican primary bid for the state House last month. The resulting debate, Hudson said, lasted “an hour and 45 minutes” and ended in a voice vote muddled by shouts from public attendees.
“It was a total ambush,” Hudson said, adding that supporters of the resolution continued gathering signatures from precinct captains after the meeting adjourned. “It’s unbelievable.”
Hudson said he doesn’t doubt that voter fraud is a live concern in America, but he does not support the resolution and challenges many of the theories promoted by Manzella and other 2020 election critics. He said he’s dismayed by the divisiveness the issue has brought to the Republican Party in the Bitterroot and believes that, left unchecked, the issue could permanently fracture the committee.
For nearly a year, Rep. Brad Tschida and other Republicans have alleged a 4,500-vote discrepancy in Missoula County’s 2020 general election. The Missoula County Republican Party conducted its own review this week, and turned up zero evidence to support that claim.
Hudson added that Republicans with concerns about election administration should be focused on tangible goals such as electing Ryan Zinke to Montana’s western district congressional seat and electing more conservative justices to the Montana Supreme Court.
“If you do not win elections,” he said, “what other alternatives are there to change the way we vote?”
‘IT WAS NOT NEFARIOUS’
Parell acknowledged that the Ravalli County resolution was “poorly received” on July 5, and said some committee members denounced its unnoticed introduction as a “coup.” She said the urgency surrounding its passage sprang from the upcoming state GOP convention, and that the goal of the resolution is partly to inspire similar action by Republicans at the statewide level.
“It was not nefarious, it was not conspiracy,” Parell said. “It was just, ‘Wow, we have the convention coming up, this is our only chance guys.’”
Manzella similarly recognized that the resolution generated resistance from some central committee members last week who were “surprised by it and had not had an opportunity to thoroughly review and vet it.” Despite that resistance, she said, it passed, and she anticipates that a similar proposal will appear before the state convention’s resolution committee for consideration this week.
“It’s my opinion that there are people in our central committees that feel that election integrity is not being given the precedence and the priority that it needs to be given, and, this is again my opinion, that some central committees may use this as a legitimate avenue to try to raise the position of election integrity to a priority in the Republican Party,” Manzella said.
The resolution in Lewis and Clark County, which passed on Monday, similarly borrows language from resolutions passed by Republican parties in other states.
“The language of the resolution came primarily from other election integrity teams,” said Darin Gaub, chair of the Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee.
Both of this month’s resolutions cite commonly trafficked national allegations of election fraud in the 2020 presidential race, asserting that states illegally circumvented their legislatures to administer the election in language that closely mirrors resolutions passed by the Texas GOP and in other states.
The Montana resolutions further claim that then-Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive allowing counties to administer all-mail elections in 2020 violated state law. Both documents call on the state Legislature to convene an election integrity committee and pass a law stating that “any election machines have all software and hardware fully transparent to the public.”
Legislative Republicans have previously attempted to call a special session to address election administration, but failed to get enough votes.
The resolutions also ask Montana’s secretary of state to leave the National Association of Secretaries of State, citing funds donated to the national organization by election machine manufacturers, and criticize grants made by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, to local election offices in 2020. Trump supporters who doubt the results of the presidential election have seized on the donations as supposed evidence of liberal influence on election administrators.
“If people are so confident that it was the most secure election in history, then they should lay out everything,” Gaub said. “If you’re hiding it, why?”
Dooling, in Lewis and Clark County, said she’s attended public tests of election systems and met with election administrators over the last year, leaving her satisfied that if there is election fraud, it’s not occurring in Montana.
“They’re not connected to the internet. There is no WiFi,” she said in reference to electronic vote tabulating machines, which have become a focus of scrutiny among Trump supporters critical of the 2020 election.
Though she didn’t attend this week’s meeting, Dooling said she’s brought her observations to the central committee during similar discussions in the past without gaining much traction. People chattering in the hallway outside of the meetings questioned her knowledge and experience, she said.
“I think there’s better ways that we can support our constituents and ensure election integrity, and that’s taking a look at what we’re doing currently,” she said, citing several election laws passed in the 2021 session.
The resolution in Lewis and Clark County did not provoke as much consternation as the Ravalli County resolution, according to several people present at Monday’s meeting. Still, the timeline to pass the resolution felt rushed, said Bridget Holland, one of the precinct committee members.
“It was released to the committee last Thursday,” she said. “It isn’t a lot of time. Everybody doesn’t live on their email. Some people didn’t read it for a couple days, several people didn’t read it till Sunday afternoon.”
Holland didn’t oppose the intent of the resolution — “there’s no way in hell that Biden got 70 million votes,” she said — but questioned its timing and purpose during the meeting without receiving a response she considered adequate.
‘WE SHOULD BE MOVING FORWARD’
Regardless of whether a statewide resolution is proposed or discussed, election integrity will have a presence at the GOP’s platform convention this week.
According to social media posts by Peggy Miller, a former state senator and 2016 Montana delegate to the Republican National Convention, former Republican Michigan state Sen. Patrick Colbeck is scheduled to deliver presentations about election integrity in a Billings Hotel and Convention Center room booked for the Montana Federation of Republican Women on Thursday, the first day of the platform convention. Colbeck has perpetuated unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud in 2020 during a string of appearances around the country over the past six months, including at a Manzella-led event in Helena in January.
The federation will also host screenings of “2000 Mules,” a film by right-wing commentator Dinesh D’Souza alleging voter fraud in the 2020 election. References to the film appear in the resolutions passed by Ravalli and Lewis and Clark counties.
According to MTFP inquiries, no resolutions related to the 2020 election have come before Republican central committees in Flathead, Cascade, Sanders or Dawson counties — all of which are represented by lawmakers who have promoted election fraud narratives alongside Manzella. Roger Hagan, second vice chair of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee, said his organization did receive an email Tuesday morning promoting the Ravalli County resolution but was “unable to open the attachment.” He added that the party’s executive committee “may or may not” consider the resolution at its next meeting in August.
The Lake County Republican Central Committee passed a lengthy resolution of its own back in April, though that document had different language and specifically prescribed a slate of election administration bills in advance of the 2023 Legislature.
Missoula County Republican Central Committee Chair Vondene Kopetski told MTFP this week that her organization hasn’t seen any such resolutions. However, she noted that during a committee meeting last week, one attendee attempted to make a motion to remove her as chair and replace her with state Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula. The motion was not entertained, Kopetski said, because the attendee was not a precinct captain and had no standing under the committee’s bylaws to take that action.
Tschida is a founding member of the Missoula County Election Integrity Project, which leveled repeated allegations of voting irregularities in the county’s 2020 election — allegations that Kopetski and the Missoula County Elections Office probed earlier this year, reaching the conclusion that there was “no voter fraud.”
Kopetski said she believes the attempt to remove her as chair was directly related to her approach to the election integrity issue. She added that she was shocked by the attempt given the current strength of Missoula’s Republican Party, which has succeeded in recruiting candidates for every legislative race in the county for the first time she can remember.
“I cannot explain to you why, at a time when Republicans have never been stronger in Missoula … I can’t even offer a logical explanation for what’s going on,” Kopetski said.
Asked Wednesday if he had any comment or response to the attempt to remove Kopetski, Tschida replied via text message, “Nothing worth mentioning.”
As for whether the recent resolutions in other counties are a prelude to coming strife at the state party convention, Kopetski said she hopes not. Republicans, and Montanans more broadly, she said, have far more pressing issues to focus on.
“We should be dealing with the economy, with the price of food, and we should be dealing with the upcoming election,” Kopetski said. “We should be moving forward, and we should be uniting to get a better platform elected.”
In a Wednesday appearance billed as the first in a series of events announcing policy priorities for next year’s legislative session, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he wants to raise the exemption threshold for Montana’s business equipment tax.
This fall, 20 school districts across the state are exploring a new approach to standardized testing. The Office of Public Instruction-led pilot, backed by $3 million in federal funding, seeks to replace Montana’s year-end exams with incremental tests throughout the school year.
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.