Local group wants to end mail ballots, hand count for elections; county officials say system is secure

A group of locals requested to meet with the County Commission to discuss their concerns over election integrity, which ranged from Russian interference, hacking and fraud.

Lewis Zanto, a local resident, requested the meeting with commissioners and on April 25, presented his group’s concerns.

To address their concerns, Zanto and his group asked that the county eliminate mail ballots and count all ballots by hand instead of using the counting machines.

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Commissioner Don Ryan said that “being an American citizen, I have a right to vote. And you’re saying you have the right to vote if you do this, this and and this and you show up at this time and place. The problem with your solutions is you’re telling some people that they can’t vote.”

Zanto said that he didn’t want a majority of people voting by mail.

In 2020, then Gov. Steve Bullock ordered that the election would be a full-mail ballot due to COVID concerns.

In Montana, school board and municipal elections are typically mail ballots and federal elections are not full mail elections, but most voters in the county opt to vote by mail, according to the elections office.

About 40-50 people came to the presentation, which was more than officials had been told would attend, Commissioner Joe Briggs said.

Zanto said they believe there are some security issues with the election, though have been no formal or informal complaints in Cascade County related to election fraud or voter fraud, according to the county elections office and the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices.

Jeff Mangan, Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, told The Electric that since he was appointed to the position in 2017, there have been seven voter fraud complaints statewide. One was referred back to the local government for adjudication and one is currently in court in Phillips County. The others were unsubstantiated, he said.

Mangan said there hasn’t been a single formal or informal complaint related to voter or election fraud from Cascade County in his time as COPP.

Mangan said that the Montana Association of Counties has created a working group with his office, lawmakers, and the Montana Secretary of State’s office to look at Montana’s election process, address any security weaknesses and also the misinformation being spread.

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Mangan said his office is also working with local officials on election security and safety for the people working in elections.

During a March 1 training session for election judges, Rina Moore, county clerk and recorder who also heads elections, walked potential judges through the process, law changes and rules for working elections.

During that training, a woman called elections staff vile and treasonous for not watching a video about elections by My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, which has been largely debunked as conspiracy theories and misinformation.

A group has been circulating fliers in the county stating that there were an extra 3,000 votes counted in the 2020 election, but there is no evidence of that in county elections data and no complaints were filed with the county or the state.

Moore said that in her years as the county’s top elections official, she’s never seen anything like she’s seeing this year with people arguing that there’s rampant voter or election fraud.

“This is a whole new thing,” Moore said. “This is just a move to limit access to voting.”

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Zanto and his group said they have concerns with machines that count ballots, which Cascade County uses and has used for years.

They asked the county to hand count ballots, which tend to number 15,000 or more returned in any local election and Moore said it would likely take 600 election judges to hand count the volume of returned ballots.

Typically, the county has 121 election judges, Moore told The Electric.

In 2015, two city commission candidates were within 11 votes of each other and the county recounted those ballots by hand.

Moore said there were about 18,000 ballots case in that election and it took officials three days to complete the recount.

The machines currently used by the county are from Election Systems and Software. The state selects and contracts for ballot counting machines and software.

The machines are publicly tested before each election and not connected to the internet. They’re kept in secure locations and there are seals over the portals on the back of the machine so officials would know if anyone tampered with the machines or attempted to connect them to the internet, according to Rina Moore, the Cascade County Clerk and Recorder, who oversees the county elections office.

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Zanto said they were also concerned about influence on voters through social media and misinformation, but that was beyond the scope of their presentation.

“We just want to look at what the mechanics are of the system itself,” Zanto told commissioners during their April 25 meeting.

On April 26, the county conducted a public test of the ballot counting machine, as they do for each election. Two members of the public attended.

Zanto said that voter participation in the November 2020 election was high and that such a high level of participation was a red flag.

Nationwide, participation was high in that election and turnout increased in most states, according to the Pew Research Center. Montana was among the states where participation increased the most, according to Pew.

Commissioner Don Ryan said that was an indication of patriotism and not a red flag.

Zanto said that too many people have access to the statewide voter database.

The state makes the voter database information available for purchase, but it’s a snapshot in time as the database is updated regularly and those purchasing the database have no access or ability to manipulate the information within the database.

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According to both the state and the county elections office, only elections officials can enter voter information into the system.

Zanto said during the meeting that 3,500 people had registered to vote in Cascade County in October 2020. But according to county records, there were only 1,631 total registrations in the county from Oct. 6-Nov. 3, 2020.

That included 1,228 new registrations, 315 precinct to precinct registrations meaning people who had moved within the county, and 88 who had moved into the county from other Montana counties, according to the county data.

Zanto also said in the meeting that the Montana Secretary of State’s office had “purged” voters from the rolls.

Richie Melby, communications director for the SoS, said that their office does not purge voters from the roll, but follows the federal requirements under the 1993 National Voter Registration Act to maintain the voter list. None of those voters are deleted, but instead moved to a different list and are not issued ballots, according to the state.

Zanto said that he and his group believe there’s no verification for mail-in ballots.

“You don’t know that I’m a real voter,” Zanto told commissioners.

Rina Moore, the county elections official, said that voters have to fill out a voter registration card and show government-issued identification and sign the signature card.

They use the Social Security Administration system and the Department of Justice to verify social security numbers, drivers license numbers and other identifiable information to verify a person is a legal voter, Moore said.

If anything kicks back as unverified, that person doesn’t get entered into the system.

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If a ballot comes back with a signature that doesn’t match the signature on file, it could be for a number of reasons, such as a person having a stroke, and the elections office puts those ballots aside and contacts the voter to address the issue by calling them so the voter can come in and verify with their id and update their signature card if necessary.

Voters who submit a ballot with a signature that doesn’t match have until the afternoon after the election to address the issue or the ballot is rejected, Moore said. The same applies for a ballot returned with no signature.

A person in the meeting said they could forge the signatures of family members.

“If you’re saying you can forge somebody’s signature, that’s voter fraud on your part, not mine,” Moore said.

Zanto said that his group did some of their own canvassing by knocking on doors and talking to voters.

He said that they found some people no longer lived at their address in the database or had other issues based on voter data they used from the 2020 election.

Moore said that under state law, a person can use their last address in Montana if they intend to move back, which many military members do.

There are some voters that are legally able to vote but are homeless and use the Rescue Mission as their address on their registration since an address is required to enter them into the system.

Commissioner Don Ryan said being homeless did not negate a person’s right to vote.

Zanto noted that there were some people who hadn’t voted in several years that voted in the 2020 presidential elections, which elections officials said is common that some people only vote in presidential years and some only in certain presidential years.

Moore told Zanto that if they provided the names of voters their group had found questionable, her staff could check their records and verify their information or address any issues.

Zanto’s group did not provide names of the voters they found questionable. His group said they’d canvassed 211 houses.

For the May 3 school board election, the county mailed 34,508 ballots.

Zanto and his group said that they’d prefer ballots be hand-counted since computers can be hacked and that a 2020 legislative audit of the state election system stated that hand counting is the most secure method of ballot counting.

The report also states that only 11 counties in Montana that only use hand-counted ballots.

“In counties with higher populations, this is not a viable option and voting tabulator machines and associated systems are used. These tabulators and associated components are provided and managed by an election systems vendor,” according to the report.

The counting process, dictated by state law, also picks two precincts per county at random and officials hand count ballots for multiple races in those precincts to verify that the machine counted accurately.

Rina Moore, the county elections official, said that in her time those audits have always shown the county machines have accurately counted the ballots and there have been no complaints of errors.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said that during his time as a commissioner, they’ve had to do two hand counts after elections that were within a certain margin to trigger a recount and in those instances “people’s failures on counts is worse than machines. I’m afraid we would increase our error rate. I see no data locally that we’ve had a problem.”

Moore said her office would be willing to hand count two more precincts, one selected by the local Republican and Democratic parties, for another hand count audit, but that the parties would need to be willing to help pay for that cost of staff and election judges’ time.

Briggs said it was interesting to him that the people he could identify in the room by party were all Republicans, who had won their races in the 2020 election.

“I appreciate your concerns for the idea that things could happen. Computers are better than they used to be. We take a lot of cautions here in Cascade County to keep it from happening,” he said.