A special meeting of the Ravalli County Commission turned tense at points Monday as a group of citizens spent nearly five hours presenting local elected officials with what they claimed was irrefutable evidence of rampant corruption in Montana’s elections.
The event at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds was scheduled in response to a petition signed by 350 people and submitted to the commission by Stevensville residents Tim and Patt Hancock. Commissioner Jeff Burrows told Montana Free Press that he and his elected colleagues hoped to use the forum to send a message: that they stand behind Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg and the existing election process. For Tim Hancock, the meeting presented an opportunity for a segment of the Bitterroot Valley to respond directly to those officials.
“You all are here, elected by the people, and the people have concerns and need to be heard. The elections belong to we the people, not the government,” Hancock said at the onset of the evening, drawing applause from many of the more than 300 people gathered.
From the moment attendees entered the event doors, the beliefs underpinning that message were abundantly clear. Volunteers handed out parodies of the iconic “I Voted” sticker with upside-down American flags and the words “ES&S Voted” — a reference to the company that manufactures Montana’s vote-tabulating machines. Paper handouts stacked along one table laid out the questions and concerns of the Montana Election Integrity Project, a citizen group that has promulgated the idea of widespread voter fraud. At another table, people were directed to sign a petition demanding that Plettenberg’s office rid the county of electronic voting machines and count votes by hand.
If Hancock’s message in his opening remarks wasn’t direct enough — the 2020 election was “stolen,” and Montana’s 2022 election showed “huge election impossibilities” — a sign propped on the stage made it crystal clear: “Montana’s entire election infrastructure has been corrupted.” That statement, as well as the information provided Monday to support it, remains unsubstantiated. Above the sign, Plettenberg, the three commissioners and Ravalli County Sheriff Stephen Holton sat at polite attention as a string of four speakers organized by the Montana Election Integrity Project stated their allegations.
Over the course of two and a half hours, that journey took elected officials and audience members through an array of charts, slides and insider appeals to the election skeptics in the crowd. Greg Woodward, an electrical engineer and retired Army officer, reviewed his analysis of election results in western Montana counties using the methods of Ohio mathematician Doug Frank, who claims to have developed an equation proving the 2020 election was electronically manipulated. While Frank’s work has been discredited by Stanford University researcher Justin Grimmer and others, Woodward insisted that the application of his equation to Ravalli County’s 2020 and 2022 election results “proves that some sort of manipulation is going on.”
“One day, some group of commissioners is going to have to stand up and fix this unquestionably broken system,” concluded Woodward, earning a standing ovation. Near the back of the room, MTFP overheard one attendee mutter, “They should be fired or shot.”
Montana Election Integrity Project President Jane Rectenwald sought to build on Woodward’s presentation by describing what she argued were a series of “anomalies” in Montana’s 2020 election results. Among those purported anomalies were the fact that Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen received more votes than any other statewide Republican candidate, though Rectenwald acknowledged her illustration excluded the Libertarian candidates in four of the eight races because they “skew the graph.” Jacobsen was one of the four Republicans who squared off solely against a Democrat.
Rectenwald extended her skepticism to the 2022 election, displaying a series of graphs that showed correlations between votes in the Montana Supreme Court race between Ingrid Gustafson and James Brown and those for or against LR-131, Montana’s so-called “Born-Alive” initiative. According to Rectenwald’s graphs, voters favoring Gustafson — an incumbent strongly supported by reproductive rights advocates — also opposed LR-131, while voters for Brown — endorsed by the Montana Republican Party and state-level GOP leaders — predominantly cast their ballots for LR-131 as well. The similarities in those trendlines, Rectenwald claimed, show that Montana’s voting machines were manipulated.
“I think the question is, can you trust the results?” Rectenwald asked the crowd. Mutters throughout the room replied no.
Ravalli County voters have historically leaned Republican in past elections, often by two-thirds majorities in races up and down the ballot. All three commissioners — Burrows, along with Greg Chilcott and commission chair Dan Huls — were elected as Republicans, as was Plettenberg.
From there, the evening became gradually more charged with Rectenwald pivoting to a condemnation of Plettenberg’s use of grant money in 2020 from the nonprofit Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). The grants, dubbed “Zuckerbucks” by the election denial movement due to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s large contributions to the effort, were sought by county election officials to assist with expenses incurred as a result of Montana’s switch to an all-mail election during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rectenwald claimed that Ravalli County “illegally” accepted a nearly $20,000 CTCL grant and criticized the opposition of Plettenberg and other county clerks to a 2021 bill seeking to prohibit such funding.
Plettenberg, in her capacity as legislative liaison for the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, took an informational stance on a similar proposal this spring. Senate Bill 117 passed into law May 1, requiring that all costs of conducting elections be covered with public funds.
The crowd began to thin as Rectenwald approached the end of her hour-long presentation, shrinking by half before she reiterated the request for hand-count elections. She added to that a demand that Ravalli County resign its membership in several national and statewide organizations including the Montana Association of Counties, and a suggestion that the county’s vote-tabulating machines be “melted down.”
The full weight of that mistrust in the machines came crashing down around 10 p.m., when the night finally took a turn to the promised community question-and-answer session. Mike Webber, a chemical engineer in Hamilton, stepped to the microphone and began to articulate his confidence in the accuracy of machine tabulation over hand counting. Members of the audience booed loudly or shouted for Webber to get to his question.
“This is pretty hostile,” Webber said, then proceeded to ask about revelations that top Fox News personalities privately expressed disbelief in President Donald Trump’s voter fraud claims despite featuring such theories on their programs. Webber was shouted down before he could finish asking his question, and attendees clapped as he returned to his seat.
After listening for more than three hours, Plettenberg at last found openings during the Q&A to lay out the details of her office’s election process. She spoke about the post-election audits conducted to ensure voting machine accuracy, and she pushed back on the feasibility and security of a machine-free, hand count. She maintained that the use of CTCL funds was perfectly legal, directing Rectenwald and other critics to visit her office’s website and see for themselves the documentation outlining how the money was spent. Accused by one questioner of sowing “fear” among lawmakers during the 2023 session and shouted down by an audience member that “the machines are rigged,” Plettenberg struggled to get her message across.
“I’m not your enemy,” she said.
Another attendee turned his question to Sheriff Holton, asking whether the night’s presentations had convinced him that any laws were broken in Ravalli County during recent elections. Holton said he did not see any evidence to suggest an elected official in the county violated any laws, and he added a word of caution that no sheriff should walk onto a crime scene looking for evidence to support a preconceived belief.
“That’s dangerous territory,” Holton said.
The scene was too much for former Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz, who scooped up the microphone in defense of Plettenberg and her elected colleagues on stage. You’re lucky to have them, he told the crowd. Not one of them is corrupt.
“These people are my neighbors, for Christ’s sake,” he said, his tone sharp. “I’m a fourth-generation Bitterrooter. How many of you can say that?”
Patt Hancock closed the meeting with another request for the commission: Schedule a follow-up meeting, ideally at the fairgrounds, to brief the public once they’ve had a chance to digest the evening’s information. Burrows offered no such assurance but expressed frustration that the Montana Election Integrity Project had not shared the details of a countywide canvass it conducted of the 2020 election in late 2021. Some of the information gleaned from canvassed voters warrants a deeper look, he said, but the group hasn’t made those details public despite its calls for transparency. Rectenwald countered that the conversations with canvassers were “in private” and disclosing them publicly would require permission from the individual voters involved.
Whether the meeting left anyone fully satisfied is difficult to say. But the first half at least left Stevensville resident Byron Bonney feeling closer to the truth he showed up seeking. Speaking with MTFP at the evening’s halfway mark, he said he believes that government officials “forgot who they work for.” Even before the 2020 election, Bonney had his concerns about accountability and corruption. Elections are a big deal, he said, and it’s time people got their arms around that process, reined it in.
“We need an honest election,” he said above the din of several hundred people returning to their metal chairs.
This story was updated June 7, 2023, to correct a misspelling of former Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz’s name.
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