Montana election officials to hold "parallel tests" of new voter database

Montana Secretary of State
Posted at 6:00 PM, Mar 24, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-24 20:05:19-04

HELENA — Montana officials say they’re ready to start large-scale testing on a new statewide voter database, beginning in this year’s primary election.

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office plans to get the new ElectMT system ready by having 15 counties use it alongside their current database in the June primary and November general election.

“Counties are doing effectively double entry,” said Stuart Fuller, the office’s election & voter services manager.

Fuller presented an update on the transition from the current Montana Votes system to ElectMT Thursday, at a meeting of the Montana Legislature’s State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee.

The counties participating in this year’s “parallel testing” include large urban areas and small rural ones. They’ll have election officials do many of their tasks twice – once in the current system and once in the new one – to make sure they work through any remaining issues.

“The idea is, I enter my voter registrations that come in, I make sure my absentee ballot labels are being printed correctly, I’m pulling it correctly, the election’s set up, so you can compare directly between Montana Votes and ElectMT,” said Fuller.

Cascade County clerk and recorder Rina Moore told lawmakers they’re planning to do only some areas in parallel in the primary, then do it countywide in November.

“I was relieved when I heard that we didn’t have to go for broke on the first election, that we could just look at a couple of big precincts and compare with Montana Votes,” she said.

The statewide voter database is a key element for election security. All 56 county election offices use it for things like issuing ballots, making sure voters aren’t registered twice and checking voter signatures.

This transition has been in the works for several years. The Secretary of State’s Office says Montana Votes has become outdated and ElectMT will have many improved functions election officials have been asking for.

They considered making the switch to ElectMT for this year’s elections, but Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen delayed the transition – responding to local election administrators who said it wasn’t ready yet, because it still had some unresolved glitches and had not been tested in a live election.

Fuller said Thursday they’ve addressed many of the remaining issues with ElectMT, and Moore agreed.

“We just want to thank the Secretary of State’s staff for all the work that they’ve put into this, because there was an enormous amount of work that’s been done since December to get us to the point where we are today,” said Moore.

Leaders are confident they will be finish the transition to ElectMT in the third week of January, 2023. However, Fuller told lawmakers to expect there will still be more issues to resolve.

“This is an IT implementation; I have 20 years of IT implementation in this state,” he said. “Nothing’s 100% perfect when you implement something; there’s always a patch.”

The counties participating in parallel testing are Big Horn, Blaine, Cascade, Fergus, Flathead, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Lincoln, Meagher, Petroleum, Phillips, Powell, Richland, Silver Bow and Toole.

The Secretary of State’s Office is also offering grants to help counties prepare for the parallel testing.

On Thursday, the Lewis and Clark County Commission accepted $13,500. In a request form for the grant, County Clerk and Recorder Amy Reeves said she planned to have her current elections staff start doing their work in the ElectMT system and hire two temporary workers to handle Montana Votes.