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Montana Secretary of State's office takes look back at June primary election

Montana Secretary of State
Posted at 6:08 PM, Aug 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-11 20:08:45-04

HELENA — On Thursday, the Montana Secretary of State’s Office gave state lawmakers an update on their efforts to check how the June primary election went, and on their plans to introduce a new statewide election system by next year.

Stuart Fuller, the office’s election & voter services manager, told the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee that the regular post-primary audit showed no unexplained issues in the vote counting.

Since 2009, Montana law has called for an audit after every federal election to ensure vote-counting machines are working correctly.

“It’s really a double-check that the tabulators have done their job in counting the ballots accurately and in the way that we expect the tabulators to do that,” Fuller said.

A week after the primary, state officials randomly selected precincts to check, in a public process that included rolling dice. The audit included only counties that use automated vote-counting machines; 10 counties typically hand-count all their ballots, and Lincoln County hand-counted in the primary because of a technical issue. Five other counties were exempted because they were preparing for possible recounts.

In each selected precinct, auditors counted the ballots by hand, to see if they got the same results as the machines showed. A discrepancy of five votes – or 0.5% of votes in larger counties – would be considered significant under state law. Fuller said, of the 40 counties that participated in the audit, none reported a five-vote difference – and only six reported any change at all.

“It’s a great way to have transparency in elections, and a great quality control check to make sure the tabulators are doing what we expect them to do,” he said.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan spoke during the public comment period after Fuller’s announcement. He praised state and local election officials for their work and said he hoped the audit result would be a boost to public trust in the process.

“You just received a presentation of why Montanans can feel confident about Montana’s elections, that they’re secure, safe and fair,” Mangan said. “The information that you received today and the information that’s in their offices, in your local offices, is all the information you need and we need to combat the misinformation and disinformation that’s out there.”

During the primary, 12 counties also conducted “parallel testing” of a new statewide voter database. They entered voter information, issued and tracked absentee ballots and did other tasks twice – once in the current Montana Votes system and once in the future ElectMT system, which is set to launch in January.

Fuller says they saw some minor issues, like reports not being properly centered on the page. He said the ElectMT system had challenges dealing with the Libertarian Party primary, since there was only a Libertarian ballot for voters in the eastern congressional district. Overall, though, Fuller said the testing was a success.

“We’re on track; the system’s looking good,” he said. “We ran into issues – you always do that, it’s an IT system – and we’re addressing those issues, and we’re looking forward to the November parallel and going live Jan. 17.”

Fuller said one benefit of the new system will be a more responsive address system. That will allow election officials to implement new boundaries immediately after redistricting, instead of having to input each address manually as they have with Montana Votes.

The state initially planned to implement ElectMT last year, but delayed the transition. Local election administrators said it wasn’t ready because it still had some unresolved glitches and had not been tested in a live election.

On Thursday, Butte-Silver Bow Clerk and Recorder Linda Sajor told lawmakers her parallel test in June went well.

“I think we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year, and I am confident that we’ll be ready to go live in January,” she said.

The Secretary of State’s Office plans to conduct another parallel test during the November general election. They’ll work with the same 12 counties: Big Horn, Blaine, Fergus, Flathead, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Meagher, Phillips, Powell, Richland, Silver Bow and Toole.