On Aug. 30, a Helena resident walked into the Lewis and Clark County Elections Office and, without explanation, placed a folder full of papers in front of elections division supervisor Connor Fitzpatrick. During his tenure with the department, Fitzpatrick had grown accustomed to handling paper — a ballot here, a registration form there. But the stack on the counter in front of him, he said, was “eyebrow-raising.”

“Getting that many pieces of paper generally dropped off in one go really only happens if you’re getting a delivery of paper in this office,” Fitzpatrick said in an interview this month.

The folder contained 113 identical requests, two pages each, seeking electronic voting information from the 2020 general election in Lewis and Clark County pursuant to Montana open records laws. Among the 113 requests, only the submitters’ names, signatures and contact information differed. As Fitzpatrick leafed through the stack, he got the feeling he was looking at the open-records version of a coordinated letter-writing campaign. 

The timing of the requests raised a particular concern for Fitzpatrick. Though the Nov. 8, 2022, general election was still months away, his office was already busy laying the groundwork necessary to run the election. That included proofing ballots in time to send them to military and overseas voters in late September and identifying any potential supply chain issues that might impact election workers or voters in the weeks ahead. At the time, Fitzpatrick had three full-time staffers and one recently hired temp to manage the load.

Lewis and Clark County wasn’t alone in fielding batches of records requests at a tricky time on the election calendar. At least six other large Montana counties fielded similar requests this fall, though not nearly in the quantity Fitzpatrick reported. The influx is part of a dramatic rise in open records activity noted by election officials across the state and nation in the wake of the 2020 election as supporters of former President Donald Trump take it upon themselves — at times with encouragement from prominent election deniers — to seek evidence supporting claims of error, fraud or impropriety in the nation’s electoral system.

Lewis and Clark County Elections Division Supervisor Connor Fitzpatrick pages through a stack of 113 identical open records requests submitted to his office Aug. 30. Over the past year, Fitzpatrick and other county election officials have fielded a sizable increase in such requests, mirroring open records activity across the country. Credit: Ray Lombardi

Amy Cohen, executive director of the National Association of State Election Directors, said the increase in open records requests related to elections has materialized in red states and blue states alike, in jurisdictions that voted for Trump by wide margins and others that came out strong for President Joe Biden.

“It really is going everywhere,” Cohen said. “And the challenge is that election officials care so much about transparency and want to be helpful and want to provide information, but they also don’t wake up the day before Election Day and say, ‘You know, I think this is what I’ll do tomorrow.’ It takes months of really detailed work in advance to make sure that everything goes smoothly during an election.”

Cohen added that, based on what she’s heard from around the country, the recent surge in records requests is “serving as a distraction” for many election offices at “essentially the busiest time of the election calendar.”

To better understand the scope and volume of the flood of open records requests in Montana, Montana Free Press recently obtained copies of all records requests received by seven of the state’s largest counties over the past 18 months. According to those records, election officials in Cascade, Flathead, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Ravalli and Yellowstone counties have collectively fielded more than 250 election-related requests since January 2021. 

The requests sought a wide array of documents, from standard election-year asks for voter registration files and candidate filing forms to broader appeals for election judge lists and election judge training materials. Half a dozen were related to ongoing litigation by the Montana Federation of Public Employees and the AFL-CIO challenging the constitutionality of several recently passed state election laws. Another handful contained blanket requests for all materials related to the 2020 election or for the continued retention of such materials by county officials past a September 2022 federal retention requirement.

Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg said her office’s nearly two dozen requests represent a considerable increase from the few routine requests for voter rolls and absentee lists typical of past election cycles. She added that she’s done her best to respond to requesters and not discourage people from pursuing information they have a constitutional right to access. But the challenges raised by the complexity and quantity of recent requests combined with the pressing duties facing local election officials are impossible to ignore.

“It’s a drain,” Plettenberg said. “It’s a drain on our resources, definitely as we get closer to elections.”

‘ZUCKERBUCKS’

During the June 2020 primary election, Teton County Clerk and Recorder Paula Jaconetty felt compelled to intercede in a physical altercation between two voters. One was attempting to seize the other’s ballot, Jaconetty recalled in a recent interview with MTFP, but without any evidence to support her account, Jaconetty later received a reprimand from a sheriff’s deputy. The incident underscored for her the need to implement added safety measures for her staff and for voters, and that fall she secured a $5,000 grant to purchase security cameras.

The funding came from a national nonprofit called the Center for Tech and Civic Life, which distributed similar grants to thousands of local governments nationwide in 2020. The goal, according to CTCL’s announcement, was largely to aid election offices in administering safe elections during the COVID-19 pandemic with protective equipment, additional staff and absentee voting supplies. In Jaconetty’s case, the money allowed her to meet an unanticipated need that her county couldn’t otherwise afford.

Throughout 2022, local election officials across Montana have fielded dozens of requests for documentation related to grant funding from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life, including this request submitted in Ravalli County.

“My whole election budget right now is $93,000,” Jaconetty said. “And that’s up $20,000 over the last two years just because I’m trying to get more election judges, so I’m increasing my salary to $15 for a chief [election judge] and $14 for judges. You can’t get daycare for that [and] people don’t want to take a day off of work.”

Over the past year, public requests for Jaconetty’s CTCL grant records have been frequent enough that she keeps the pertinent documents handy in a single folder. Nearly two dozen of the requests obtained by MTFP sought those same records from Montana’s larger counties.

The requests reflect a widespread national air of suspicion and outright contempt for the funding in national conservative circles, sparked by the fact that the bulk of CTCL’s $350 million effort was funded by contributions from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Election skeptics call the grants “Zuckerbucks” and accuse CTCL of peddling electoral influence on behalf of a left-leaning billionaire. Republican officials in 15 states have since implemented laws barring the acceptance or use of private money in conducting elections. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis heralded the passage of such a prohibition in his state this spring, proclaiming “We banned Zuckerbucks” at a May press conference.

A proposal to enact a similar ban during the 2021 Montana Legislature died in a deadlocked vote on the Senate floor.

The Gallatin County Elections Office fielded its first request for records pertaining to CTCL grants in February 2021 from a research analyst at the national conservative think tank Foundation for Government Accountability. The foundation is credited as a progenitor of the phrase “Zuckerbucks,” and continues to perpetuate the claim that CTCL money was “disproportionally siphoned to left-leaning counties to boost Democrat turnout and influence the outcome of 2020 elections.” As NPR reported earlier this year, CTCL awarded grants to every county that applied for the funding, and an analysis of three swing states by American Public Media found no differences in turnout or voter registration rates between counties that received CTCL funding and counties that did not.

Similar requests for CTCL-related records were later submitted in Bozeman by local residents and by Logan Churchwell, research director for the Public Interest Legal Foundation. The Indianapolis-based conservative nonprofit is headed by J. Christian Adams, a former U.S. Department of Justice attorney who was appointed to Trump’s short-lived Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Trump promoted a 2020 report by PILF warning of potential fraud associated with mail-in voting — a report that was later corrected after an analysis by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica revealed PILF had inflated a key statistic drawn from government records.

This August, Adams’ organization published a paper criticizing the use of CTCL funding in Montana and chastising county election officials for lobbying against the Legislature’s proposed grant prohibition. The paper included several references to documents obtained through in-state records requests.

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Laurel resident Peggy Miller’s curiosity about the CTCL grants prompted her to file identical requests for grant documentation with election offices in all 56 Montana counties this year. Miller told MTFP she’s received responses from at least 45, and has raised her concerns about the use of private funding in local elections to officials in Yellowstone County as well as Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen. Election offices should be exclusively funded by taxpayer dollars, she said, rather than deepening a reliance on non-governmental sources — a reliance she believes fueled opposition to the Legislature’s proposed private funding ban.

“It’s influenced each person who got it, each county, to be addicted to it,” Miller said. “They want it so bad that they will go and kill whatever bill to make sure they can get whatever kind of money to their department instead of being scrutinized and ethical and just using taxpayers’ money.”

Though Miller said she’s frustrated by what she perceives as a lack of responsiveness to her requests from some officials, including Jacobsen, others have provided her with a wealth of information. Among them is Gallatin County Elections Administrator Eric Semerad, who said his office has received half a dozen similar requests. According to documents obtained by MTFP, he’s responded with copies of the county’s grant application and reports detailing its use of the funds.

Semerad said he’s worked diligently to fulfill every request he’s received, or to explain to requesters why certain records aren’t available. Sometimes, he said, people have asked for documentation that may exist in other states but, due to the decentralized nature of elections nationally and in Montana, doesn’t exist in Gallatin County. He said the records people have sought from him are “legitimate things to ask for.”

“I get the desire for citizens to want to know how their elections are being conducted,” Semerad said. “If it’s what it takes to alleviate those concerns, then I’m going to do everything I can to try to serve them, to get them what they want. If we have it.”

THE MISSOULA ALLEGATIONS

One election records request in particular became a source of considerable friction last year, fueling a string of allegations against officials in Missoula County. Working alongside a group of local citizens in late 2020, Republican Rep. Brad Tschida requested access to a trove of mail-in ballot envelopes from the 2020 election. His group hand-counted those envelopes in January 2021 and compared their total to the number of votes cast in the county, a process that subsequently fueled allegations of discrepancies in the election results.

Missoula County Election Administrator Bradley Seaman repeatedly rebutted the claims made by the group, which has since named itself the Montana Election Integrity Project. So did the county’s three commissioners. And a second count of the envelopes conducted this spring by the Missoula County Republican Central Committee discovered no such discrepancies, with chair Vondene Kopetski concluding there was “no voter fraud” in the county’s 2020 election.

In January 2021, a group of Missoula County citizens were granted access to count signed ballot envelopes from the 2020 election, resulting in allegations of voting irregularities. Later that year, similar open records requests were submitted in Flathead and Gallatin counties, though neither resulted in the requested count.

The allegations resulting from Tschida’s request nonetheless fed growing criticism of the current state of Montana’s election system. Tschida and several other Republican lawmakers used it as ammunition in their unsuccessful call for a special legislative session to establish an investigative committee on election integrity. Over time, the Missoula County claims have become entwined with more suspicions and allegations tied to national narratives spun by pro-Trump members of the Stop the Steal movement.

Based on the open records requests obtained by MTFP, it also appears that Tschida’s request inspired other Montanans to similar action. A records request filed in Flathead County on Aug. 25, 2021, sought access to the same types of envelopes from the 2020 general election with a note saying “we will have a team of 20-25 to count.” Another envelope access request, filed in Gallatin County Nov. 30, 2021, estimated it would take a team of 25 volunteers about five to six hours to complete their count. The requester added: “My intention is not to contest any part of the election. I am aware the time period to contest has passed.”

Neither of the people who filed those requests responded to messages seeking comment for this article.

In Bozeman, Semerad replied with an estimate of the cost to fulfill the request, including an advance count of the envelopes by his staff in preparation, staff time for overseeing the citizen count and delivery to the count site. The total came to $7,391.73 for 385 hours of dedicated staff time — an estimate the requester wrote “seems quite high” compared to the roughly $3,000 that Missoula County charged.

Semerad told MTFP that the resources associated with fulfilling the request were “frightening,” but that the count “never came about.” Flathead County Clerk and Recorder Debbie Pierson said the submitter to her office also did not follow through with their envelope access request.

CAST VOTE RECORDS

When the 113 form requests landed on his counter in Lewis and Clark County this year, Fitzpatrick said, he was “shocked” by the prospect of a resource intensive fulfillment process. But the identical nature of the requests made it easier to issue a uniform response, and he realized after looking at the forms that the records being sought were not something he could provide. He’d already seen several identical requests a week earlier.

“The blanket instructions provided by those who are advocating such requests fail to take into consideration one of the realities and strengths of our country’s election administration processes: their decentralized and non-homogeneous nature.”

Idaho Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck

The subject of those requests mirrors the latest document-seeking trend among election skeptics nationwide: cast vote records, or CVRs. As reported last month by the nonprofit news outlet Votebeat Arizona, which focuses on election administration issues, a CVR is a spreadsheet produced by an electronic voting machine that shows the votes cast on an anonymized ballot — or, as Votebeat described it, “essentially a receipt of everything the machine scanned.” While that data is useful for researchers, Votebeat and other media outlets have quoted experts explaining that CVRs cannot be used to detect patterns of fraudulent activity in an election.

Requests for CVRs made up more than half of the records obtained by MTFP from the seven Montana counties, with 126 filed in Lewis and Clark County in late August and early September.

Montanans’ sudden interest in CVRs corresponds with a deluge of identical requests across more than a dozen states. County election officials reported similar surges in Pennsylvania, in California, in Oklahoma, and in Oregon — distinct campaigns by concerned locals, all apparently linked to one man: MyPillow founder and steadfast 2020 election denier Mike Lindell, who has ties to several Republican Montana lawmakers active in the self-styled election integrity movement.

Ten days before Fitzpatrick was presented with the pile of CVR requests, Lindell hosted a livestreamed “Moment of Truth Summit” in Missouri during which he encouraged “every single person in the country” to request such documents from their local election officers. The Montana requests contain language identical to a template request form posted online by Ordros Analytics, a Florida-based company that claims to be building a national “CVR repository” and lists Jeffrey O’Donnell, a Lindell ally, as its chief information officer.

Two filers of the Lewis and Clark County requests — local Republican committee leaders Darin Gaub and Donna Elford — declined to be interviewed for this story unless they were allowed to read it prior to publication, which MTFP policy does not allow. Elford did explain the rationale behind the duplicate requests in a recent interview with Helena’s Independent-Record, saying the tactic was a reaction to previous requests not being fulfilled.

“We’re not being conspiracy people,” Elford told the I-R. “We have concerns and we keep asking and we keep pointing out things and we’re not getting answers.”

The latest flurry of open records requests at county election offices sought to obtain an electronic voting machine report known as a “cast vote record.” Election officials said such documents are not produced in the state in the course of processing an election.

In the case of cast vote records, Fitzpatrick and other county election officials stressed that the tabulating machines used by their offices don’t generate those documents, nor are they required to by state law. The same goes for all counties in Idaho, where Deputy Secretary of State Chad Houck has also noted a “significant uptick” in requests for records from the 2020 election, specifically CVRs.

“The blanket instructions provided by those who are advocating such requests fail to take into consideration one of the realities and strengths of our country’s election administration processes: their decentralized and non-homogeneous nature,” Houck told MTFP via email. “Given that all 50 states, and in many cases the counties or jurisdictions within those states, make individual and unique decisions about how they will execute an election, there is a level of complexity in looking at the national picture.”

TRANSPARENCY AND DOUBT

The dramatic rise in election-related records requests has not yet caused any serious delays for county election offices in the lead-up to Nov. 8, election officials say. But the broader atmosphere of doubt and suspicion driving those requests has already left a mark on state and local officials. The flood has reached as high as the secretary of state’s office, where spokesperson Richie Melby said the “unprecedented number of records requests” has occupied an “extraordinary amount of staff time.” And Montana Association of Counties spokesperson Shantil Siaperas told MTFP that the volume of requests statewide, in conjunction with other “circulating questions” about elections, was a factor in the formation of a bipartisan Election Processes Workgroup last spring.

The workgroup, which includes Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan and several state lawmakers, recently announced the launch of a website, VotingInMontana.org, dedicated to “dispelling myths” and educating the public on Montana’s election processes. 

At the local level, Jaconetty recalled a recent episode during a training for election judges when an attendee began to make allegations of irregularities in Teton County’s 2020 election results. She briefly halted the training to avoid getting into a “big scrapping argument.” She’s also continued to keep all physical records from the 2020 election in secure storage past the federal government’s 22-month retention requirement, just in case election critics decide to pursue legal action.

In Missoula County, the uptick in requests at the elections office in 2021 — along with a similar increase in requests for COVID-19-related records from the county health department — prompted officials to invest in a new digital request-filing platform. Now, all open records requests are submitted online through the Next Request system and routed to the proper department. Once fulfilled, those requests and the documents they produce become publicly viewable.

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Even in smaller counties faced with far fewer requests, the impact of the underlying suspicion is visceral. Prairie County Election Administrator Shari Robertson, who also serves as the county’s clerk and recorder and clerk of district court, said it “hurts” and “angers” her to hear local citizens question the integrity of the elections she and her fellow county officials conduct.  

“It’s questioning our integrity, our staff, and I am taking it personal,” Robertson said. “It’s wearing. I shouldn’t have to prove myself this many times.”

The frustration cuts both ways. Some requests require consultation with other county or state offices, which can delay response times. Others come with steep price tags, require a court order for release, or, as with cast vote records, can’t be fulfilled because the records don’t exist. 

Cohen, with the National Association of State Election Directors, said those realities can create a “patchwork” of responsiveness that contributes to confusion and mistrust among the people asking for documentation.

“It’s questioning our integrity, our staff, and I am taking it personal. It’s wearing. I shouldn’t have to prove myself this many times.”

Prairie County Election Administrator Shari Robertson

“If you got it from one place in a state, why shouldn’t you be able to get it from another?” Cohen said, speaking to the question requesters might raise. “Sometimes there are real practical reasons, like our technology doesn’t create that record, but it can also just be like the time required in one office might be cost prohibitive for someone to pay for.”

Peggy Miller, the serial requester in Laurel, has certainly felt her mistrust building. She said she’s perceived a lack of cooperation from Jacobsen and other officials in her search for public records. Her inability to obtain copies of grant applications or contracts with tabulating machine vendor ES&S from certain counties has led her to conclude that something is being hidden.

“There’s just a lot of doubt that could be resolved if they truly wanted to be transparent,” Miller said.

Without additional insight from Montana’s hundreds of requesters, it’s unclear how county election records might ultimately satisfy the deeper concerns underpinning the quest for information. For Miller at least, the root of her requests lies in a belief that the 2020 election results in Montana contained several “red flags.” Yes, she acknowledged, Trump won the state. As did every statewide Republican candidate on the ballot. But she casts a verbal arched eyebrow at the fact that of all those candidates, Jacobsen secured the most votes — 352,939 in total, according to results posted by the secretary of state’s office, more than Gov. Greg Gianforte, incumbent U.S. Sen. Steve Daines or even Trump himself. The margins by which adult-use marijuana and a referendum barring local gun control ordinances both passed are also difficult for Miller to parse compared to other results that year. And the fact that Democrats haven’t raised doubts about the results only deepens her suspicion.

Political researchers have sought to allay similar suspicions by underscoring the inherent unpredictability of voters, and numerous state lawmakers and election officials have spent more than a year trying to reassure the public that Montana’s elections are, in fact, secure. If so, Miller said, there’s one way to resolve her misgivings completely. It’s an improbable request, perhaps impossible given the time that’s passed, and unlikely to be fulfilled regardless: a complete reaudit of the 2020 election.

“We’re not wanting to blame or put fault on anybody,” Miller said. “We want to prove we’re good and here’s how we can prove it. And then we could be the first state to honorably say there were questions and we had no problem proving ourselves.”

HOW WE REPORTED THIS STORY

Earlier this year, Montana Free Press embarked on a project exploring how doubt and denial around the 2020 presidential election has impacted the county officials who conduct Montana’s elections. We’d heard scattered reports about open records request activity in Montana and elsewhere in the country and started talking to local election officials about the situation.

Several reported a notable increase in records requests over the past year, and expressed concern that, while they wanted to be responsible stewards of public information, the scope and volume of the requests could prove problematic as the 2022 midterm grew closer. Aware that a records request of our own might contribute to the issue, we fashioned a simple ask for copies of every public records request filed with their offices since January 2021. We sent it to election officials in Montana’s eight most populous counties this fall and got records back from seven (Butte-Silver Bow County politely replied that due to a rise in records requests and the need to prepare for the upcoming election, they could not get us records until later in November).

Officials in all but one county waived the fees for fulfillment of our requests. Missoula County charged $68.95 for collecting physical records produced prior to the adoption of its online Next Request system.

As those documents trickled in, we began the process of reading, counting and sorting them. We followed up with election officials, including two in smaller counties, to get a better sense of what was happening. We reached out — via email, voicemail and text — to at least eight requesters we recognized as publicly active on political issues to better understand the concerns fueling their requests. Three responded, and one agreed to an interview. Given recent news coverage of open records activity around the country, we also spoke with a national election administration representative, Amy Cohen, to get a broader read.

The work’s not over. What comes of these requests and the challenges they might raise for election officials will continue to generate coverage. So too will the concerns fueling the debate they’re part of.

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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...