Voter Melba Anderson finishes up her ballot for the midterm election in Victor, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: John Stember / MTFP

A special committee established by the Montana Legislature to discuss election security issues held its first meeting late Thursday, giving Montanans a glimpse into where the group will focus its attention this session.

The committee’s chair, Republican Sen. Carl Glimm of Kila, prefaced the meeting by noting that the initial proceedings would be largely organizational, as the committee’s responsibilities and authority differ from those of other legislative committees. Rather than pass bills directly to the House or Senate floors, Glimm said, anything the joint select committee on election security proposes will be routed to one of the Legislature’s standing committees for a vote. He added that any legislation developed by the committee will be subject to the March 1 transmittal deadline, a halfway point in the session by which all general bills must be sent from the House to the Senate or vice versa.

“The process for this committee and how we’re going to run this committee is we’re going to have a number of informational sessions looking at election security in basically all facets and try to learn and investigate and see what there is,” Glimm said. “We’re not going in with any preconceived notions, and we’re kind of on a fact-finding mission. What can we do for the people of the state of Montana to make sure that our elections are as secure as they can be?”

The Legislature’s decision to convene such a committee comes after roughly a year of repeated efforts by a small group of Republican lawmakers to form one during the legislative interim, none of which succeeded. Three of those Republicans — Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, and Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle — were appointed to the new select committee, and were also members of a self-described “ad hoc election integrity committee” that met outside the Legislature in early 2022 to discuss suspicions and allegations of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Two Democrats also sit on the committee: Sen. Shane Morigeau of Missoula and Rep. Ed Stafman of Bozeman.

“We’re not going in with any preconceived notions, and we’re kind of on a fact-finding mission. What can we do for the people of the state of Montana to make sure that our elections are as secure as they can be?”

Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila

During Thursday’s meeting, Glimm said the committee’s next gathering would include a presentation from state and potentially county election officials on the processes used to conduct Montana elections — or “election procedures 101,” as he put it. Glimm added that he is open to suggestions from other committee members regarding future presentations, guests and topics for discussion and “we’ll see where the process leads us.”

Morigeau told Glimm he appreciated his clarification of the committee’s purpose, noting that it “sounds like we’re just going to look at processes and systems and look at ways to improve things, and obviously not using it to hash out old issues.” Manzella also weighed in, drawing the committee’s attention to an August 2020 report by the Legislative Audit Division on security and maintenance of Montana’s election systems and encouraging members to read it.

The committee briefly discussed how to handle posting the report and other topical resources to its legislative website, though Glimm later informed Montana Free Press that he’s unsure whether such a website will be created. Morigeau suggested that the committee vote to approve materials prior to posting. Stafman echoed the request.

“I would ask that before anything be posted on the website, that the committee have an opportunity to review and decide that it’s reliable and that we’re not the dark corner of the internet posting something,” Stafman said.

After the meeting, Glimm reiterated to MTFP that one of his desires for the committee is that its work be “very specific to Montana” and any materials it reviews be “reputable and pertinent” to the state’s processes. The committee will meet next on Jan. 19 at 4:30 p.m. in the Old Supreme Court chamber of the Capitol. 

Concern about the security of Montana’s elections also came up earlier Thursday in a meeting of the House State Administration Committee. Lawmakers heard testimony on a measure, sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, to allow county commissions to select a down-ballot race to include in their post-election audit. House Bill 172 arose from the efforts last year of a bipartisan workgroup, spearheaded by the Montana Association of Counties, to counter election misinformation. MACO stood in support of the bill, as did Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg and Elections Director Dana Corson from the secretary of state’s office.

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“This is voluntary,” MACO President and Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott informed the committee. “It requires the board of county commissioners to request this. Their action is required to do this, so they don’t have to do it. But it’s another check and balance in the system.”

During the administration committee’s discussion of the bill, one member alluded to a suspicion that’s fueled growing distrust among election skeptics nationally in electronic vote tabulators, the machines that Montana’s hand-count audit process is intended to verify the accuracy of. Phalen asked Plettenberg and Corson whether either could guarantee that tabulators used in the state do not contain modems — a theory common to far-right narratives suggesting tabulators can be digitally manipulated to alter election results.

“I’m told that you can’t even open the machine up and look inside as part of your contract, so how would you know there is no modem?” Phalen said, acknowledging that Plettenberg had testified in answer to a previous question that one of her county IT staff had tried to access a tabulator remotely with his phone during the 2022 election and was unable to.

Plettenberg informed the committee that tabulators cannot contain internet hardware under state law, and she and Corson stressed to Phalen that Montana’s post-election procedures are expressly designed to detect any potential tampering with the machines. Corson described that process in full, from the initial tabulation of votes on Election Day to the additional counting of provisional ballots the following Monday, and emphasized that the results of post-election hand-counts of physical paper ballots show little to no deviation from the results produced by tabulators.

“What I can say is I know a modem doesn’t exist, there’s no evidence that’s been brought forward to prove it, and the results of the post-election audit don’t support that,” Corson said.

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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...