Earlier this month, lawmakers on the Legislature’s House State Administration Committee took one of their first deep dives into the hot-button issue of how Montana runs its elections. The bill in question, House Bill 172, would give county commissioners the option of adding a countywide race to their post-election audit. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, framed the proposal as an extra quality-control measure for counties that conduct their elections with electronic vote tabulators. And he made the motivation behind the measure abundantly clear.
“I think Montana has a sound, well-functioning, well-managed election system. I also believe that it’s secure,” he told fellow legislators Jan. 12. “On the other hand, we should never rest on our laurels in this particular arena.”
HB 172 is among a slate of bills Bedey is gradually rolling out this session aimed at ensuring that Montana elections are, as he put it during HB 172’s initial hearing, “widely understood to be fair, accurate and not manipulated.” How wide that understanding currently is, though, remains a topic of debate. As committee members probed the proposal, Vice-chair Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, focused his inquiries on a question that has generated widespread skepticism among certain conservatives nationally. What guarantee, he asked Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, could she offer that vote tabulators do not contain modems susceptible to remote tampering?
“Ravalli County bought the first ES&S machines back in 1984,” Plettenberg replied, explaining her trust in the company that supplies tabulators in Montana. “It was my husband’s grandma. She was the clerk and recorder, so she remembers buying the machine. This is a longtime partnership we’ve had with this vendor, and I’ve never had an issue with them.”
Election Director Dana Corson with the Montana secretary of state’s office also attempted to reassure the committee that there’s no evidence to suggest Montana’s tabulators contain a modem or any other such device. Further, Corson said, any manipulation of a machine’s count would be detected in the post-election audit process.
Despite bipartisan support among House lawmakers and favorable testimony from county and state election officials, HB 172 failed to win a yes vote from Phalen when it passed out of committee. Neither did House Bill 173, Bedey’s proposal requiring modem-free certification from tabulator manufacturers and assigning criminal liability if a modem or other unauthorized device is discovered. Prior to the committee’s vote on the latter, Phalen once more pressed his fellow legislators as to what proof they would have that the certification was genuine, arguing that “you’re just taking their word.”
The back-and-forth about modems speaks to the undercurrent of suspicion now fueling a push-pull over election administration policy in the Capitol. A string of proposals from Bedey and others aim to build on an election system that their sponsors and supporters agree is already fair, accurate and secure. But other bills have sprung from an unshakeable belief that the state’s election systems are vulnerable to fraud and wrongdoing, and may have been compromised already. As Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings, deftly suggested in a recent hearing on just such a measure, the question at the heart of Montana’s 2023 election policy debate centers on trust — namely, “whether trust has been broken or not.”
‘TRUST’ VERSUS ‘TRUSTWORTHY’
When it comes to trust in the electoral process, political scientist Charles Stewart III immediately splits the conversation into two camps. On one hand is what he calls “trust in elections,” and on the other is the question of “trustworthy elections.” It’s a distinction Stewart considered in detail last fall in the academic journal Daedalus, and he revisited it in a recent phone interview with Montana Free Press about the current tenor of the nation’s election administration debate.
“Trust in elections is the psychological construct … you know, how do you get people to have psychological trust that the elections are done right?” said Stewart, the founder and executive director of MIT’s Election Data and Science Lab. “Then you have trustworthy, and to make an election trustworthy, you ask, ‘What are the steps that would convince somebody who’s willing to be convinced that the results are the correct ones?’”
In Montana, those steps are marked out in a months-long electoral calendar that includes the certification of tabulators by the secretary of state, localized testing of machines on the eve of an election, and a comprehensive post-election audit and canvass process culminating in a final stamp of approval from the state. Staff from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office, along with Plettenberg and other county election officials, have walked lawmakers through the various checks and balances repeatedly this session. In fact, the Joint Select Committee on Election Security established by legislative leadership dedicated its first three weeks of meetings to exhaustive presentations from Plettenberg and SOS Elections Manager Stuart Fuller.
“I think the state and state leaders, responsible ones, need to really make sure that the system is locked down and is highly reliable and auditable and verifiable,” MIT’s Stewart said. “Because if there are holes, if the state’s not doing best practices and something erroneous shows up, then it’s just going to be throwing gasoline on the fire.”
That’s where the trust factor comes in. Post-election suspicion within the electorate is hardly new. Florida’s infamous 2000 presidential recount and Russia’s interference in the 2016 election both triggered national outrage among certain blocs of voters. But following his loss in 2020, Stewart said, President Donald Trump’s legal challenges in battleground states and false assertions about widespread voter fraud “kind of metastasized” into a social movement. Despite regular efforts by Stewart and other prominent political researchers to disprove them, election-challenging theories promulgated by MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, Ohio math teacher Doug Frank and other prominent figures in the so-called Stop the Steal movement have continued to influence grassroots activists across the country.
In short, Stewart said, when it comes to trustworthiness, “I think there’s a core of people who will not be convinced.”
As Fuller and others suggested during a Jan. 26 hearing of the Joint Select Committee on Election Security, that immovable disbelief informs the atmosphere in which the state’s recent elections have been conducted, and in which incremental changes to Montana’s election process are now being debated. Three members of the six-member committee hail from a group of Republican lawmakers that, during the past interim, joined forces as a self-titled ad hoc election integrity committee. Phalen is among them, as is Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, who facilitated a meeting in November 2020 between Lindell and Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office. Manzella told MTFP that December that the meeting’s goal was to get Knudsen to sign on to a lawsuit Lindell intended to file with the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election. She also said Doug Frank was among the attendees.
Trust is a central component in Bedey’s election proposals this session. In an interview with MTFP, he said he sees HB 172 and the rest of his election administration bills as a way to “improve upon an already excellent system.” As strong as that system is, Bedey continued, it’s important to remain on “the cutting edge” of election security and reassure the public that Montana is being proactive in addressing any threats that system might face.
“Our citizens’ trust in our election system is absolutely essential,” Bedey said. “If people don’t believe in our election process, I see that as a rending of our social fabric.”
Other lawmakers within Bedey’s party remain less convinced regarding Montana’s current state of election security. Manzella said during a recent interview with MTFP that she continues to harbor concerns about areas of “weakness and vulnerability” that she believes call for swift and decisive response from the Legislature. The list of policy goals she identified includes implementing best practices for the handling of unused ballots, enhancing security at polling places and verifying that registered voters are U.S. citizens. Asked how she responds to critics who question her motives in barking up this particular tree, Manzella replied that constituents are demanding that lawmakers turn attention to such issues, and it’s those constituents who “need to be satisfied that the process is safe.”
“The only way that I see to repair [trust] is to shine a light on it and give everybody the opportunity to see it transparently and allow them the opportunity to ask their questions and have their questions and concerns satisfied,” Manzella said. “A person’s perception of reality is their reality.”
THE POLICY DEBATE
A week after its Jan. 12 hearing on HB 172, the House State Administration Committee took up yet another election-centric proposal, this one focused on a foundational component of the democratic process: ballot counting. House Bill 196, if passed, would require county election offices to conduct their counts to completion “without adjournment.” Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, said she introduced the bill at the request of citizens “involved with voter integrity projects” across the state. Those exact words — “without adjournment” — were struck from state law in 2019 as part of a Republican-sponsored bill enabling election officials to prepare and count absentee ballots one day before an election.
“Since this language was removed, the voters having [trust] in the integrity and security of our elections has eroded,” Hellegaard said. “I ask a do-pass [on HB 196] in an effort to start restoring voter trust.”
County election officials balked at the change proposed in HB 196. Flathead County Clerk and Recorder Debbie Pierson testified that prior to 2019, her elections staff and volunteers worked as many as 30 to 40 hours “without a break, without sleep” counting ballots. Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder Eric Semerad estimated it took a total of 24 hours to process just the absentee ballots submitted on Election Day last November, and cautioned against placing additional burdens on election workers at a time when his office has experienced nearly 200% turnover in the past year.
“It just really is not humane to expect the people that are the backbone of our election department here to have to work through all of that without a break,” Semerad said, adding that after pausing the count and securing the ballots late on election night 2022, his staff got “about three hours of sleep” before returning to resume the count the following morning.
The proposal’s supporters cast HB 196 as a necessary change in the name of election transparency and citizen oversight. Speaking in favor of the bill on behalf of Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Corson added media access to that list, saying that timely and regularly updated results made available to voters, candidates and news outlets “promotes confidence in the election process.” Lisa Bennett, a Carbon County resident who unsuccessfully challenged the status of more than 200 registered voters last year, expressed concern about the public’s inability to independently verify the continued security of election materials after county offices are vacated and secured during count breaks.
“We need to make sure we have citizens overseeing our government,” Bennett said. “Just like any other business, you have good people in positions but you also could have nefarious characters that are in a position to do something.”
A handful of lawmakers carrying such proposals have become well known for voicing similar skepticism, including Phalen, Manzella and Hellegaard, a freshman representative who helped spearhead a citizen count of mail-in ballot envelopes from Missoula County’s 2020 election. The count gave rise to allegations of a vote discrepancy that were disputed by the county’s election office and later by its Republican central committee.
But so far in the 2023 session, it’s the frequent testimony of Bennett and a small group of similarly suspicious citizens that has invoked the broader national climate of denialism most strongly. During a Jan. 18 hearing before the Senate State Administration Committee, proponents of Senate Bill 117 made repeated references to “Zuckerbucks,” a phrase conservatives have attached to the $350 million donated to county election offices nationwide in 2020 by the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life to assist with pandemic-induced voting changes.
SB 117, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, seeks to bar county officials from accepting such private contributions. As SOS Chief Legal Counsel Austin James indicated in supporting testimony on Jacobsen’s behalf, 24 states have enacted similar bans in the wake of CTCL’s efforts, which were largely underwritten by donations from Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“The funds were used to permanently change the election infrastructure in Montana to support mail-in ballots and voting machine tabulation,” Lewis and Clark County resident Gina Reilly alleged to lawmakers. “Election clerks continue to receive free monthly newsletters from this Democratic organization.”
Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, objected to the use of the phrase “Zuckerbucks,” calling for the funding to be referred to as CTCL grants. And while Vance’s stated goal for the bill is to eliminate the perception of outside partisan influence on Montana’s election infrastructure, opponents argued that SB 117 cast too wide a net, threatening necessary sources of funding for cash-strapped counties and potentially undermining the ability of tribes to host satellite election offices in reservation communities. Concern about the bill’s impacts on voting access in those communities prompted Lance Four Star, director of the Montana American Indian Caucus, to recite a letter signed by all 11 caucus members opposing SB 117.
Justin Grimmer, a political science professor at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, gets the impression that much of the suspicion around all things election in America stems from a “strong personal intuition that something was amiss in 2020.”
“Then they use that to go out and search for reasons that they find compelling,” he continued in a recent interview with MTFP.
Grimmer’s work has thrust him into the thick of some of the most persistent conspiracy theories and allegations of voter fraud to emerge from the ashes of Trump’s electoral defeat. Among those is the repeated claim made by Doug Frank to conservative audiences in Montana and elsewhere that he has evidence of an algorithm proving the 2020 election was stolen in nearly every county in the country.
“I’ve read a lot of bad takedowns of Doug Frank’s work where people are like, ‘Oh, he’s using the wrong data’ or something. But that’s not the issue,” Grimmer said. “The issue is he’s reaching the unsurprising conclusion that areas that have more people have more people turn out to vote. That’s all he’s shown in his analysis. So he’s basically correlating a variable with itself.”
Grimmer and his colleagues at Stanford’s Democracy and Polarization Lab put together a website challenging Frank’s assertions in a way Grimmer hopes even the mathematically uninitiated can understand. He also co-wrote a paper in 2021 challenging alleged correlations between certain voting machines and areas that went heavily for President Joe Biden. Yet with all that fact-checking, Grimmer remains cognizant that such conspiracies have taken a strong hold among “true believers,” enough to actually influence local election procedures.
“Shasta County [California] just canceled its Dominion contract effectively because of people like Doug Frank,” Grimmer said, referencing one of the manufacturers of voting machines in the U.S. “I’ve been in regular touch with them up there, trying to do some work with them, and now they have to scramble. They have to find a new vendor in order to be able to count their ballots.”
MONTANA’S SELECT COMMITTEE
Understanding the scale and complexity of Montana’s election system requires patience, curiosity and extensive conversations with officials at various levels of government. That’s why for much of the past month, the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Election Security has dedicated its time to an exhaustive series of presentations from Fuller and Plettenberg. Save for the occasional probing question, committee members have spent hours in the cavernous Old Supreme Court Chambers quietly following the duo on a verbal tour of the entire electoral process.
“The election security select committee, created at the request of members of the Legislature, has had many good conversations with Montana election officials so far,” Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, said in an emailed statement to MTFP. “I look forward to seeing what ideas and proposals members of the committee bring forward as they examine Montana’s election processes.”
The committee’s formation sent a clear signal in early January that the election integrity debate would be prominent during the 2023 session. To the best of his knowledge, Stewart said, no other legislature in the country has appointed such a body. And though its earliest meetings have largely centered on information from state experts about how elections are conducted, election concerns and allegations raised elsewhere in the Capitol have gradually begun to permeate the committee’s proceedings.
Twice already, the committee’s two Democrats — Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, and Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman — have objected to the tenor of public comments, requesting that people refrain from making allegations against specific election officials who aren’t present to defend themselves. Other committee members have repeated lines of questioning about vote tabulators and voter roll maintenance raised in separate committees.
On Jan. 26, the undercurrent of skepticism and distrust finally broke the surface. A brief discussion about the financial obstacles counties face in obtaining security cameras for election offices abruptly pivoted into questions about legal penalties for county clerks who violate election regulations. Plettenberg took a deep breath before pushing back.
“I do think maybe we need some of that, but I did have a new clerk say to me, ‘Wow, taking this job, I didn’t know I could lose my life, be convicted of felonies,’” Plettenberg said. “I just don’t believe that clerks are out there trying to break the law. I don’t. I’m not going to say mistakes may not be made, good-faith mistakes. But this is a different landscape that we’re in. I’ve been doing elections a long time, and just the last four years have been different.”
Plettenberg proceeded to talk about the notable rise in public records requests she’s received in recent years. With that, the seal was broken. Phalen, one of the committee’s six members, asked whether the change in atmosphere after 2020 was rooted in voter distrust of voting machines. Stafman speculated that the “biggest hole in election integrity” was the loss of experienced election staff and volunteers who have borne the brunt of post-Trump allegations and skepticism. Despite repeatedly commending Plettenberg on her own diligence conducting elections in the Bitterroot Valley, Manzella made her broader stance on Montana’s election system abundantly clear.
“It wasn’t until 2020, when I started getting hit with thousands of questions that I couldn’t answer, that I realized how remiss that I had been in my obligation to take the process seriously,” Manzella said. “I need to be able to look my citizens in the eye and tell them that I have taken it seriously, I do understand the process, and that I can support the process. Quite frankly, I cannot do that.”
Manzella went on to share that, in her view, there’s a “power struggle” between the public’s newfound interest in the election process and officials’ ability to satiate that interest. As MTFP previously reported, hundreds of records requests filed with county election offices have requested documents that either don’t exist in Montana or, due to the strict secrecy granted to an individual’s ballot by the Montana Constitution, require a court order to unseal. The committee’s discussion became a distillation of facts that so many election officials and concerned citizens have struggled with for more than a year: answers can be difficult or even impossible to provide, and there’s no guarantee they’ll mesh with the questioner’s perception of reality.
To that end, Grimmer recalled the suggestion of one election official at a recent Hoover Institution conference that what the U.S. needs is a “countrywide civic education effort” to provide the public with a deeper understanding of the electoral process. He said the election integrity debate has already spurred some state and local election officials to take steps to make the process more transparent and easier to understand, such as implementing online ballot-tracking features. In Montana, the efforts of a bipartisan workgroup last year are already coalescing in broadly supported policy proposals including Bedey’s HB 172.
Grimmer said one of the real threats of continued skepticism is the chilling effect it could have on recognizing the small but substantive improvements state and local leaders are actively making.
“We could lose sight of the fact that 2020 was a year of incredible [voter] participation,” he said. “2022 also saw just incredible engagement from the public. Voter confidence surveys and voter experience surveys seem to indicate that folks generally thought the voting went incredibly well. So it’s disappointing to have all these fraud narratives happening because it seems like this should be a time when election administrators would be able to beat their chests a little bit and claim some credit. Hopefully that’s the narrative that’ll come out in the future.”
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