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While election officials across Montana reported a primarily smooth midterm on Nov. 8, an incident in Cascade County late last week served to underscore the fact that skepticism about the electoral process — and the fear such skeptics have generated among election workers — has not yet dissipated.

“I got some crazy-ass letter at my home. Some religious saying about, in the Book of Revelations, how the world will be cleansed of the wicked.”

Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore

The situation arose Friday as county staff, along with local representatives from both political parties, were performing the routine task of preparing provisional and military ballots for counting on the Monday after the election. According to Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore, a group of six to eight people began circling the county office building as the work commenced. At least one of the individuals was wearing camouflage, Moore said, and they were “freaking out” that the building was locked due to the Veterans Day holiday.

“We ended up calling the sheriff because they kept circling the building,” Moore continued. “We had to call the county attorney over here, and this white car kept going around and around.”

In recounting the experience, Moore said individuals among the group also photographed members of her staff, as well as their cars and license plates. She did not speak directly to the group, but Fred Fairhurst, treasurer of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee, did. Fairhust told Montana Free Press in an interview Monday that he briefly stepped outside and informed the observers, who Fairhust said were “primarily Republicans who were concerned about the process” that he was there to ensure the processes taking place inside were “legitimate.” He said he also told them it might be best if the group left, as the elections staff were “legitimately afraid.”

“I felt bad for them,” Fairhust said of the election workers. “They were in tears.”

Fairhurst was on hand as one of three party representatives — two Republicans and one Democrat — monitoring the transcription of military votes onto machine-readable ballots. That process was conducted by two other county GOP members as well as a local Democratic Party representative. Fairhurst acknowledged that despite what may be said or printed, there exists a “fringe element” that is “not going to believe that the process isn’t flawed.” Based on his observation, he said, there was “no indication” that the process was anything other than legitimate.

“That’s a tight ship down there,” he added. “I think the Cascade County election process is run honestly and is a very tight process.”

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Moore links Friday’s activity to an ongoing pattern this year of records requests, questions and criticism leveled against her and her staff by an outspoken group of election skeptics. MTFP is not aware of any similar post-election gatherings near election locations elsewhere in the state, and during a press briefing Monday, David Becker, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, said he did not hear of any major incidents of intimidation or violence occurring in other states last week. But Moore said the charged atmosphere continued into the weekend.

“I got some crazy-ass letter at my home,” she said. “Some religious saying about, in the Book of Revelations, how the world will be cleansed of the wicked.”

The episode in Cascade County is further complicated by the fact that Moore, who was first elected as clerk and recorder in 2006, was trailing in her own race for re-election on Monday. Moore is one of three clerk and recorders in large Montana counties to face an unexpected challenger in 2022. Gallatin County’s Eric Semerad and Lewis and Clark County’s Amy Reeves both retained their posts by wide margins last Tuesday, in contests that attracted outside spending by a national political committee formed to counteract purported election denial activity. Moore’s Republican opponent, Sandra Merchant, who did not respond to a request for comment, was 20 votes ahead as of Monday afternoon. That margin could change once provisional and military ballots are counted, but either way, Moore said the race is “definitely” headed for a recount. 

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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...