Election Day 2022 kicked off with what Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office characterized as some disappointing news. Shortly before 9 a.m., the office’s My Voter page was down, rendering users incapable of accessing Montana’s widely touted waypoint for voter-specific information including polling place locations, voter status and sample ballots.
The state moved quickly to fix the problem, and by 9:45 a.m. the site was functioning normally again. But the snafu was emblematic of the types of wrinkles that can and often do punctuate an otherwise smooth election.
“Smooth” is exactly the word several election officials in larger Montana counties used to describe Nov. 8 overall. In phone interviews and email exchanges, Montana Free Press learned that the process itself went about as expected from an administrative viewpoint, and that voters were for the most part patient, courteous and even downright appreciative. Turnout was close to average for a midterm — about 57% according to unofficial statewide results posted Wednesday, significantly lower than the 72% voter turnout posted in Montana’s 2018 midterm election, but roughly on par with midterms in 2014 and 2010.
The reports of general calm Tuesday came despite a year of confusion over the status of new election administration laws, the sudden onset of winter weather across much of the state, and an atmosphere of anxiety generated by far-right reprovals of election officials and the integrity of the process they oversee.
During a morning briefing with national media, David Becker, executive director at the Center for Election Innovation and Research and CBS News’ resident election law analyst, speculated that any intimidating or violent behavior related to election skepticism was unlikely to manifest until after results came in. For supporters of popular election denial narratives nationally, Becker said, it’s not about process but rather about outcomes.
“What they do is they try to de-legitimize a process in advance just in case they lose, so then they can amplify that and use it as an excuse to create chaos and confusion and potentially incite violence,” Becker said. “But if they win, they go silent.”
From “cast vote records” to nonprofit election grant documents, the recent spate of open records requests at county election offices in Montana mirrors a nationwide surge propelled in part by prominent pro-Trump critics of the 2020 election.
So far, MTFP has confirmed reports of intimidation in only one location: Carbon County. Elections Administrator Crystal Roascio said Wednesday that law enforcement officers had to escort one “unruly” poll watcher away from an election site on Election Day, and pointed to county announcements about two other developments this week. The first occurred prior to the election, when a single individual formally challenged the status of roughly 300 county voters. Roascio’s office deemed all those challenges insufficient due to lack of supporting evidence, but each individual had to be notified of the challenge pursuant to state law. According to county commission meeting minutes, the person who filed the challenges, Lisa Bennett, has appeared before local officials previously alongside Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, to question the county’s election practices.
Carbon County also announced this week that it received reports from several electors about intimidating phone calls on Election Day claiming the recipients were not eligible to vote.
Richie Melby, a spokesperson for Jacobsen’s office, wrote via email that he was unaware of any suspicious or intimidating behavior at polling locations in the state. However, he added that the office did hear concerns about long lines, including “an instance of registered voter(s) being told to join the line with unregistered voters.” According to county officials throughout the state, wait times for voters and new registrants at election offices varied considerably. In Gallatin County, clerk and recorder Eric Semerad said the wait time later in the day stretched to two hours, while in Missoula County, election administrator Bradley Seaman estimated the wait at the election center to be roughly 45 minutes. Regina Plettenberg, clerk and recorder in Ravalli County, said the wait time throughout the day was around 20 minutes, and never exceeded half an hour.
“We had a very smooth election,” Plettenberg said. “Other than the weather, those things you can’t control.”
MTFP did confirm one report of a notable Election Day challenge related to winter weather. According to election officials in Yellowstone County, a courier carrying blank ballots and other election materials was rear-ended on bad roads en route to polling locations in the Shepherd area. The incident resulted in a temporary delay of ballot delivery to those locations, but the items were successfully delivered before noon.
Over in Flathead County, a tip came in Tuesday that the election office’s outgoing voicemail was informing callers that the office was closed. Clerk and recorder Debbie Pierson wrote via email that the county’s Election Day holiday resulted in an automatic, inadvertent switch to a “closed” message but that the message was changed back shortly after staff learned of the situation.
Similar concerns about inaccurate information reaching voters cropped up well ahead of Nov. 8, starting with outdated material about voter registration and ID laws published in a state-produced pamphlet. In the week leading up to the election, the Montana Democratic Party and ACLU of Montana again criticized Jacobsen’s office, this time for promulgating inaccurate polling location information in several counties through the My Voter page. MTFP followed up on that concern Friday and determined that several of the inaccuracies were due to recent county-level polling changes that hadn’t been successfully transmitted to the state. Jacobsen’s office contacted local officials and resolved the situation Friday.
The voter engagement nonprofit Forward Montana also posted to social media Tuesday about reports of voters being turned away from voting locations for trying to use student IDs to vote — a practice that was barred by a 2021 state law but reinstated by a September court order. The post did not specify a location, but a similar tip received by MTFP mentioned Yellowstone County. MTFP attempted to verify the claims with a firsthand account but was unable to, and Yellowstone County Deputy Elections Administrator Tami Kelling said she was unaware of any such reports. Anyone who does have knowledge of this or similar issues on Election Day can contact MTFP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Polling locations did continue to be an issue for some voters in Flathead County. The county has consolidated several polling locations since 2020, and the elections office itself moved to a new facility this year. Despite repeated outreach informing voters of those changes, Pierson said, she heard reports of people showing up to find polling locations closed and sent “runners” out multiple times to investigate.
“We had a fair amount of people that went to our former office, and there was some frustration with folks on that,” she added. “Any time we have a relocation, you know, we can put it in the newspaper, we can put it all over Facebook, we can put it on our webpage, we put it all over the instructions that went out, but people are creatures of habit.”
After the polls closed at 8 p.m., Flathead County was among half a dozen larger counties to experience an extended delay in posting initial results. Pierson said that in her office’s case the delay was due to a connectivity issue at the county’s vote tabulation location, forcing staff to transport the results to the central office in order to report them to the secretary of state. Semerad explained that Gallatin County’s delay was the result of two-hour wait times at the courthouse, where the final voter wasn’t processed until roughly 10:30 p.m. He added that the county could not post its results until everyone in line had been served.
In Missoula County, Seaman stood before a clutch of election observers and journalists shortly after 8 p.m. and announced that results likely would not be posted until after 10 p.m. The delay, he said, came about because results from an earlier test of election equipment had not been wiped from the machine. That threw off the count, he continued, but election workers caught the error before results went out to the public. He attributed the delay strictly to “human error,” adding that the situation spoke directly to the checks and balances the county has set up to ensure fair and accurate elections.
“This is just an aspect of making sure that as we go through this process, we are double-checking our own work,” Seaman told MTFP. “The potential is that we provide inaccurate results and have to retract those. So this step helps make sure that people know that these results are going to be accurate.”
As of 3 p.m. Wednesday, Missoula and Gallatin were among a handful of counties still reporting only partial results to the secretary of state. Semerad said he expected his office’s count to continue after 5 p.m. The ongoing counts there and elsewhere are due to continued processing of mail-in ballots deposited at elections offices and polling places on Election Day, and provisional ballots cast by new registrants and others throughout the day cannot be counted until after 3 p.m. Monday per state law. Montana’s election results will not be considered official until each county completes its own post-election canvas and the state concludes a subsequent audit — both standard and well-established components of the electoral process that will play out in the coming weeks.
Despite the myriad challenges raised by such a complex, decentralized and critical undertaking, Pierson said Flathead County’s 2022 election was relatively smooth sailing. Election officials across the state and the country went into Nov. 8 surrounded by a year’s accumulation of criticism, not knowing what to expect. But based on her observations Tuesday, Pierson said it’s clear that the challenges facing local election administrators recently have not gone unnoticed by the broader voting public.
“More than ever, I felt like we had people that went out of their way to come up to us and say, ‘Hey, I just want to thank you guys for what you do,’ or drop off treats at the office,” Pierson said. “I do think that even the greater public has become more aware of … just the kind of beating the election officials and staff get. It was really encouraging to have some, ‘We think you guys are awesome.’”
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