Question: What does the Montana National Guard have to do with statewide elections?
Answer: We don't know.
(And neither does the Montana National Guard.)
Last week, excellent reporting by the Montana Free Press revealed that the statewide association of election administrators have serious concerns about new software the Secretary of State Corey Stapleton is implementing in time for the 2020 Presidential Election.
The story raises many good questions that go unanswered. For example, how did a no-bid contract for the software work? Why is there a rush to get election software implemented in such a tight timeline? And, why can't the Secretary of State's office comment on these issues?
On June 20, the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders sent Stapleton a letter that said his office's aggressive 2020 timeline was "worrisome" and asked him to delay the implementation until 2021.
Yellowstone County Election Administrator Brett Rutherford explained that trying to implement new software during a presidential election, when turnout is the highest, could spell disaster.
Previously, Rutherford told The Gazette that new software was tested in smaller municipal or school board elections. This allowed elections officials to run ballots through an older tested system alongside the new system to make sure the vote counts were accurate and the software works.
However, this will not be this case with this new software, Rutherford said. Moreover, the change is slated to happen between the primary and general election, another problematic wrinkle for staff.
Maybe even more disconcerting is that the same software vendor has had problems in other states, for example, Washington where it's been unable to deliver a fully working product. Rutherford should know. He was on the committee exploring the options several months ago.
Another troubling aspect of Stapleton's office is that he used a specific bidding process that allowed him to select a certain company, rather than sending out a request for proposals.
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When Stapleton's office was pressed on details about the new system, why the bidding process unfolded the way it did, and the timeline, it responded that it could not comment on the new system because of a request not to speak on the issue by the federal Department of Homeland Security and the Montana National Guard. Why in the world would the National Guard have anything to do with Montana elections?
However, The Gazette checked with both of those agencies to better understand why they'd ask for a gagorder on something as important as election integrity.
Also, why in the world would the National Guard have anything to do with elections in Montana?
Predictably, spokespeople for both the National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security have said neither agency has asked the Secretary of State to remain silent.
We would hope that any concerns about election fraud or vulnerabilities would be disclosed and addressed.
In other words, we believe the Secretary of State's Office was using an official sounding excuse to dodge real responsibility for a rushed software system that could hamper election efforts.
How about giving us the real answer, Secretary Stapleton?
We believe lawmakers, regardless of party, need to investigate how a single software company in South Dakota received the contract and if taxpayers really got a good deal.
We also think something like the 2020 presidential election is so important that Montana can't afford to have an entirely new election software and hope it works out. We need more testing and more assurances. That can only be done if the full roll-out is not until at least 2021, like the elections officials have asked.
We also think that lawmakers ought to look into the bidding process. Was the correct bidding process used? Have we shut out other vendors and software companies that may have had a superior product? And was any of the Secretary of State's actions directing money toward an entity he had a relation with; remember, Stapleton has a track record of this sort of thing when he sent a printing job to a friend in the name of expediency.
If Stapleton truly cares about the election, as he says he does, then he needs to care enough about it to do it correctly. And that, say the clerks in the field, can only be done in 2021.