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

Two years ago, Montana’s debate over election policy was already making a hard pivot from the legislative arena into the courts. Lawmakers had passed a string of bills directly impacting the voter experience, including ending Election Day registration, and opponents of those laws were gearing up for a lengthy legal battle that’s now before the Montana Supreme Court.

The 2023 session proved to be markedly different, with the Legislature focusing not so much on voters as on the election process itself. Legislators talked at length about voting machines, post-election audits and retention of digital voting records — routine procedures and pieces of infrastructure that have increasingly become the focus of election skeptics in the wake of the 2020 presidential race. As a prelude to the issue’s prominence, Republican leaders even announced in December the establishment of a special committee explicitly tasked with probing the state of Montana’s election security.

The results of all this work will likely be invisible to people casting ballots by mail or showing up at the polls. But for county election officials and their staffs, the close of the 2023 Legislature brings with it a dozen or so tweaks and changes to how they conduct elections.

That process begins well before Election Day and includes ensuring that voter lists are as up to date as possible. Two bills passed this session — House Bill 335 and Senate Bill 498 — outline new procedures for how counties verify the addresses of absentee voters. The former, signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte last month and sponsored by Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, directs county officials to place absentee voters on their inactive lists if a ballot is returned as undeliverable and the voter fails to respond to notices to confirm their address. The latter, sponsored by Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, requires counties to routinely verify the addresses of absentee voters and work with state agencies to do so if voters fail to respond. SB 498 is currently on its way to the governor.


Trust, perception and Montana elections

Heading into the 2023 session, Montana was primed for a pitched policy debate over the integrity and security of its election process. Now the conversation among lawmakers has kicked loose questions about trust, perception and how extensive the case for change truly is.

Under House Bill 173, signed into law last month, state and county election officials will also need to take steps to make sure that all electronic voting systems — in other words, vote-tabulating machines — are free of any modems or other unauthorized wireless devices. That verification also calls for third-party testing at the county’s expense. HB 173 only requires that the modem-free verification be done once but gives counties the option to conduct additional third-party checks at their discretion.

Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, who testified repeatedly during the session on behalf of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, also drew Montana Free Press’ attention to the passage of House Bill 543 and Senate Bill 123. Both bills add requirements to what counties must include when listing the impacts of bond and levy proposals on ballots, among them a notation that property tax increases resulting from a bond approval “may lead to an increase in rental costs.” 

Plettenberg also noted that Senate Bill 117 was signed into law this month, prohibiting county election offices from accepting or using private funding to conduct elections. And House Bill 196, now on the governor’s desk, will require local offices to perform their Election Day vote counts without taking breaks, a proposal that generated concern among some county election officials about the potential for staff fatigue.

On the back-end of Montana’s elections, House Bill 172 will allow county commissions to add a local race to their post-election audits. That process is designed to verify the accuracy of machine-generated results by performing hand-counts of randomly selected races and precincts chosen by rolling dice. HB 172, sponsored by Bedey, enjoyed bipartisan support as a low-impact way to further assure voters of the fairness and veracity of election results. 

“The legislation I did was not just window dressing,” Bedey told MTFP. “I think it did strengthen our post-election audit process, which is the centerpiece of ensuring that our vote counting machines and that sort of thing are functioning properly and not being hacked in some way.”

Gianforte signed HB 172 into law last month. Alongside it, Senate Bill 197 doubled the number of races and precincts involved in the post-election audits, and Senate Bill 254 proposed extending that process to include counties that do not use voting machines. The former was signed May 2, while the latter is still making its way to Gianforte after lawmakers approved an amendment from him just prior to adjourning.

Overall, Plettenberg said the Legislature did a “phenomenal job” of balancing the concerns of election skeptics, who demanded more accountability and transparency, with those of county officials wary of placing additional burdens on their employees and volunteers.

As for the Joint Select Committee on Election Security, its bills did not fare so well. SB 498 passed the Legislature, but three other proposals died, including Senate Bill 481. The measure, carried by the committee’s chair, Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, sought to require counties to retain digital records of the votes tallied by voting machines — known as cast vote records. The bill died after the Senate adjourned abruptly last week, a fate Plettenberg said was “unfortunate.” But she did appreciate the opportunity this session to regularly assist lawmakers in grasping the nuances of a complex process that’s been thrust under a microscope nationally.

“This session I saw legislators who don’t normally carry election bills carrying election bills. Even just in drafting them, on getting the idea, they had to kind of reach out and say, ‘Where can we go with this? What is actually administratively feasible?’” Plettenberg said. “For that [select] committee, a lot of it was just Elections 101, and we’ve never had to do it to that degree.”


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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...