Two voters fill out their midterm election ballots at Hamilton High School on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: John Stember / MTFP

This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

The 2023 session has a long way yet to go, but as of late last week, the special committee tasked with probing election integrity in Montana has all but completed its work.

After returning from this month’s transmittal break, the Joint Select Committee on Election Security had just one lingering item left on its docket: finalizing a proposal addressing enforcement of state election laws. Agreement proved a bit more difficult than members anticipated. Democrats thought the duty of enforcing those laws should fall to the commissioner of political practices. Republicans argued it belonged with the state attorney general. But on Thursday, they reached a unanimous compromise: Allegations of election-related crimes should be directed to the secretary of state’s office to investigate and, depending on those findings, further action should be referred to the relevant county attorney or to the Montana Department of Justice.

The final bill to enact that compromise — complete with a proposed $120,000 appropriation to the DOJ for a new dedicated prosecutor — has to be introduced this week to meet a legislative deadline, and will bring the committee’s grand total of policy proposals to four. Prior to transmittal, members released three bills focused on the internal workings of county election offices. Two of them add new requirements for county retention of documents from vote tabulating machines and the types of tests performed on those machines. The third directs counties to routinely check the accuracy of voter addresses on their absentee ballot lists. All three cleared the Senate, and Senate President Jason Ellsworth commended the committee’s efforts to find common policy ground between the needs of election officials and the concerns of election skeptics.

“I’m really proud of the work they did,” Ellsworth said during a press call March 20, noting that presentations to the committee by the secretary of state’s office and county officials helped dispel misinformation and confusion about electoral processes. “I think for citizens, it was very educational to understand how our system does work, how it is different from other states.”

The committee’s proposals may have enjoyed early bipartisan support in the Senate, but their passage to the House is already generating additional scrutiny. On Thursday, Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg told lawmakers on the House State Administration Committee that the trio of bills introduced earlier this month could result in increased costs and administrative burdens for county offices. A fiscal note prepared for one of the bills estimates that mandating the retention of “cast vote records” from tabulators would cost 17 counties a collective $255,000 for new computer equipment and annual maintenance.

Plettenberg’s opposition prompted a round of inquiry from lawmakers about how to aid local governments in covering those expenses. They were told that some funding assistance could come from federal Help America Vote Act grants. The bill’s sponsor and chair of the select committee, Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, also said he’d be open to allocating state money to the cause, but added that counties should still have “skin in the game.”

In other words, while the select committee’s meetings have come to an end, debate about the policies it recommended are far from over. How its work will improve or enhance public trust in Montana’s elections — and to what extent it will impact local election officials — now hinges on the full Legislature agreeing with the committee’s vision of balance.

latest stories

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...