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

A version of this story was originally published in the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.

The past three months have featured one legislative debate after another over proposed changes to how counties conduct elections and verify their results. But last week the conversation took an inevitable turn into the realm of enforcement — in other words, how Montana will police the integrity of its elections moving forward.

The first pitch came last Wednesday from Rep. Neil Duram, R-Eureka, who suggested the state establish an “election security team” made up of eight appointees handpicked by statewide officials, legislative leaders and the Montana Supreme Court. Duram’s House Bill 905 would task that team with overseeing a post-election hand count of all ballots cast in every Montana precinct — numbering 663 as of the 2022 general election — and report its findings to state and county election officials.

The bill’s reception in the House State Administration Committee was less than enthusiastic. Duram argued that while the undertaking would be “arduous,” HB 905 warranted careful consideration given the suspicion and mistrust expressed by certain voters. But opponents of the bill, including Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, countered that the cost of conducting such a count would far exceed the $100,000 appropriation made in the bill. Keegan Medrano with the ACLU of Montana panned the bill’s lack of codified qualifications for security team members, referring to the proposed group as an “election version of the Keystone Cops” — a phrase that committee chair Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, rebuked as derisive and a breach of decorum.

The committee quickly tabled HB 905 on a 16-2 vote. But members didn’t have to wait long for another bite at the enforcement apple. On Thursday, Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls, appeared with House Bill 953 in tow, proposing a robust and multi-tiered path toward responding to election-related complaints.

HB 953 received a somewhat warmer welcome, having been crafted with bipartisan support by the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Election Security. The bill seeks to lean on Montana’s existing jurisdictional structure in handling allegations of election crime. Under HB 953, such allegations would be filed in a new electronic case management system and referred to the appropriate authority. That referral chain would begin with the commissioner of political practices, but could fall to the state attorney general or the relevant county attorney if necessary. The potential crimes addressed in HB 953 range from citizen interference with election officials to undue influence over voters, and the bill also sets up a new investigator position at the commissioner of political practices’ office to handle complaints.

Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, told lawmakers that the bill, which he helped craft, would allow citizens with election-related concerns to receive the closure that, according to the select committee’s hearings, they may not currently get. Evan Barrett, a constitutional convention scholar who helped establish the COPP office in the 1970s, added that HB 953 is “a bill that ought to be passed.” And pass it did.

But on Saturday the bill was tabled by the House Appropriations Committee on a 19-4 vote. The only comment prior to that action came from Rep. John Fitzpatrick, R-Anaconda, who told his colleagues, “I think this bill may be well intended, but I think it’s directed in the wrong place.”

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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...