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Election officials question readiness of Montana's state voter-database conversion

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Posted at 3:07 PM, Nov 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-11 21:38:59-05

HELENA — County election officials say they’re worried a planned conversion of the state’s massive voter-registration database for 2022 isn’t ready for prime time, and that it could cause problems at a time of heightened scrutiny of elections.

“The last thing I need to do is explain to a voter next year -- `Oops, there was a bug in the system, sorry you got issued two ballots,’” said Rina Fontana Moore, the election administrator in Cascade County. “Or, `'Sorry, we accepted your ballot, but the system didn’t accept it.’”

Moore and Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg spoke last week to a state legislative committee, saying they wanted legislators to know their concerns -- and possibly ask their own questions of Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, whose office is implementing the change.

But no one from Jacobsen’s office would appear last week before the committee, which met in a room at the Capitol one floor below her office.

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Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen.

In response to questions from MTN News, Jacobsen’s office issued a statement, saying it would make a “data-driven decision” on whether to convert to the new system in December, based on “what is best to uphold election integrity in Montana to ensure our elections are secure.”

Yet county election officials said they’re still concerned that Jacobsen could go forward with the conversion next month, even if they say it’s not ready. A group of county election officials is scheduled to give the project a “go or no-go” vote Dec. 20, Moore said.

“We want to make sure if we say `no go’ it’s a no-go,” she said.

Moore and Plettenberg said their primary concern is that the new software system, known as Elect Montana, hasn’t been tested in a live election. It was scheduled to have such a “parallel test” during the Nov. 2 municipal elections in Montana, but the system still wasn’t ready, they said.

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Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg.

“We weren’t able to do the parallel test in November, and that to me was critical,” Plettenberg told the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee last week. “We are going to continue to work with the secretary of state, but we didn’t want to get down to that midnight hour and still have these concerns, and have you say, 'Why didn’t you say anything to us a month ago?’”

Moore said she thinks a parallel test now can’t be held until 2023, because it would be too difficult to run one during a busy election year like 2022.

The state has been using a statewide voter-registration database for 15 years, with a system called Montana Votes. Several years ago, then-Secretary of State Corey Stapleton purchased a new system for about $2 million, Moore said.

Jacobsen, who was Stapleton’s chief deputy before winning election as secretary of state in 2020, began preparing the new system this year, to start in 2022.

The voter database is used by all 56 county election offices in preparing and issuing absentee ballots, making sure voters aren’t registered in more than one location, checking signatures on mailed ballots and validating signatures on initiative petitions. It’s a key element for election security.

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Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Fontana Moore.

“We want to be part of this, because we are the users of this program,” Moore told MTN News. “We want to make sure the program meets our needs. The secretary of state registers candidates. They don’t issue ballots, run ballots or check the signatures.”

A group of nine county election administrators, including Moore and Plettenberg, have been working the Jacobsen’s office to test the new system, running it through numerous contingencies to see whether it works properly.

Moore told the committee that the “parallel test” could not be run Nov. 2 because the software was “not up to par.”

“It still has bug after bug after bug,” she said.

Moore said she thinks the conversion should be delayed until 2023, which is the earliest that a parallel test should be run. Running a parallel test next year would be unrealistic, because of the heavy voting traffic and other workload that come with a federal election year, she said.

Jacobsen’s office did not answer a question from MTN News, asking if it would consider delaying the implementation until 2023.