MISSOULA — In the wake of allegations that Missoula County had unexplained discrepancies in ballot-envelope counts for the 2020 election, the local Republican Party is planning to do its own count – and settle any doubts that the voting process is flawed.
Missoula County Republican Party Chair Vondene Kopetski told MTN News Monday that she and other party volunteers worry that unresolved doubts about the integrity of the election process could suppress voter turnout in 2022.
“I get a lot of calls from people saying, `I’m not going to vote, because my vote doesn’t count,’ or that there is voter fraud in Missoula County,” Kopetski said in an interview. “We just felt it was our responsibility to address this problem and reassure voters that their vote does count.”
She said the envelope count will occur as soon as it can be arranged with Missoula County election officials, perhaps within the next few weeks.
Oddly enough, the effort by the local party is in response to a similar count conducted a year ago by an independent group of local Republican activists, coordinated by GOP state Rep. Brad Tschida of Missoula.
That effort suggested that nearly 4,000 ballots, or more than 5 percent of the total votes cast in 2020, couldn't be matched with mail-ballot envelopes.
Missoula County election officials have said that count was erroneous, and that all mailed ballots cast in 2020 were properly certified. Like most counties in Montana, Missoula conducted an all-mail ballot for the November 2020 election, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kopetski said publicity of the earlier count may have led to many Republican-leaning voters in Missoula questioning the election process and doubting their ballot will be counted.
While the local party wasn’t involved in that count, the party has been getting feedback from voters, asking why it’s not doing anything about allegations of voter fraud, she said.
“We felt we had an obligation to reassure the voters of Missoula County that every vote counts,” Kopetski added.
Tschida, the coordinator of the 2021 count by local GOP activists, said he doesn’t see why the local party needs to do its own ballot-envelope count.
“The idea that there has to be an additional count to confirm it, is a waste of people’s time and energy,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to be gained by doing this.”
Kopetski said the party will be replicating what the other group did last year – counting the “affirmation envelopes” for ballots from the November 2020 election and comparing it to the total of votes cast, to see if it matches up.
Affirmation envelopes contain a mailed ballot and have the voter’s name, signature and a bar code matching up the voter. Ballots are separated from the affirmation envelope before they’re counted, to ensure voter secrecy.
When mailed ballots arrive at the county election office, the affirmation envelope is checked against a statewide voter database and recorded as received, for that voter.
Missoula County Election Administrator Bradley Seaman said his office will work with Kopetski to set up the new count by the local Republican Party as soon as possible.
Seaman said he suggested the local GOP cross-check the affirmation envelopes against each specific person recorded as voting, to get a truly accurate accounting of votes, ballots and envelopes. He said repeating the “blind count” of the affirmation envelopes and comparing it to votes cast “is not a best practice, in auditing or certifying an election result.”
But Kopetski said she wants to do the same thing as the earlier group, to double-check it, examine any problems and report those to the public.
“We want to look at it as they looked at it,” she said. “We’ll let anyone come and observe. … If we do find discrepancies, we will run those to ground, find out why they occurred. We just don’t want to let (the earlier) accusations hang out there.”
Seaman said he’s glad to help the local GOP conduct its count and ensure that everyone knows how it’s done.
“We want people to feel as confident in their election results as we do,” he said. “And the best way to do that is through transparency.”