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Montana Senate

Murals adorn the ceiling of the Montana Senate at the Capitol in Helena.

Yellowstone County finished counting ballots for the Nov. 6 General Election about 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 7. The counting started early on Election Day and the county's tabulator machines worked properly, but the sheer volume — 140,000 ballot sheets — resulted in an all-day, all-night and most-of-the-second-day work shift with no sleep for election officials doing this very important job.

Meanwhile in Gallatin and Missoula counties, tabulator machines broke down, further delaying their election results. Gallatin County elections workers toiled for 38 consecutive hours to finish counting ballots and the county had to pay $16,000 in overtime. In Missoula, the November count ran for 40 straight hours.

Election results could have been available earlier — if the ballot prep (opening envelops, unfolding ballots and stacking them in secure boxes in locked vaults) started earlier. Present Montana law says counting cannot commence until Election Day and that absentee ballots cannot be opened, unfolded and stacked for counting until the day before Election Day.

Last November, Yellowstone County election judges were still slicing envelopes open and unfolding ballots nearly till 5 a.m. the day after the election.

Montana's election administrators have proposed a practical remedy for the high-volume ballot counting using tabulator machines:

• Allow counties to start preparing absentee ballots for counting on the Thursday before the election, which would provide up to three work days (Thursday, Friday and Monday) before Election Day for opening, unfolding and stacking ballots in trays for tabulating.

• Permit counties to start tabulating ballots the day before Election Day.

Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, introduced this common-sense bill on Jan. 22; the Senate passed it on Feb. 20. On March 20, county election officials from Yellowstone, Gallatin, Missoula, Ravalli and Cascade counties pleaded with the House State Administration Committee for help, just as they had in a Senate committee in February.

SOS opposition

Yet in the House committee, Dana Corson, chief of state elections voiced “strong opposition” to SB162 on behalf of his boss, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. Corson said Stapleton ran for office to eliminate election fraud and that allowing county election officials to start preparing ballots earlier would “decrease the integrity of the elections.” Corson also offered multiple amendments to the bill Stapleton opposes.

The SOS didn’t oppose the bill at its Senate hearing. The SOS didn’t offer amendments till the House hearing, so they were not available to the public before the hearing.

All Montana elections officials are sworn to secrecy about vote counts until after voting closes on Election Day. The penalty for breaking that oath is a fine and jail time. In counties using tabulator machines, only the top election administrator and his designee have the code that allows them to pull results from the machine; nobody else in the counting room can see any vote counts. The officials with access to results are held accountable because the machines produce an audit trail that shows when and who accessed results.

Stapleton himself did not attend the hearing, but Corson repeated innuendos about election fraud — without giving a single example of a problem in Montana. He made absurd hypothetical arguments that an election official could tamper with ballots in ways that current SOS rules and county election security measures actually prevent.

Ravalli County Clerk Regina Plettenberg said members of the clerks association had tried to work with the SOS on the bill, adding: “We are willing to work with the committee on this bill and amendments.”

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The clerks have done the hard work of developing a solution to real problems with the volume of tasks that they are required to complete before and after elections. To have their integrity impugned by Stapleton is an insult to these county public servants.

Committee Chairman Forrest Mandeville asked Corson if there had been any election tampering in Montana under current law. Corson did not provide a single example.

“This is like littering,” Corson said. “You probably won’t see an offense on this.” He implied that election workers have done wrong, but just haven’t been caught.

Stapleton should apologize to Montana’s county clerks and election workers for these false allegations.

The reasons for passing SB162 are urgent and honest. As Webb said: “People have limits, machines have limits.”

We call on the House members to provide Montana’s county elections workers with the time they need to do their job as securely, quickly and efficiently as possible. Approve the bill that the Senate already passed 30-19.

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