HELENA — Earlier this year, lawmakers and election officials put together a working group to address questions about Montana’s election system. With Election Day weeks away, the group says it wants to assure voters that the state’s elections are in good shape.
“Montana’s election system is both sound and secure, and we must remain vigilant to keep it that way,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton.
Bedey was one of several members of the working group who spoke to lawmakers Wednesday during a meeting of the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee.
The group included local election administrators, representatives from the Montana Secretary of State’s Office and Commissioner of Political Practices, and lawmakers from both major parties. They went over election rules and laws, looked at vote-tabulating machines and learned about the post-election audit process.
Bedey said they concluded election officials and the volunteers who work with them are doing a good job. He said the tabulators – which count the paper ballots Montanans vote on – are secure and can’t be accessed through the internet, and the audit process would catch any issues with the count.
Bedey said, nationwide, groups on the right and the left have both contributed to a loss of trust in the election system over the last few decades, by questioning election results.
“This cannot stand, and we cannot ignore it,” he said. “We must address this assault, I believe, on our fundamental representative democracy.”
The working group put together an 18-page document, called “Elections in Montana.” It answers commonly asked questions about things like how election officials seek to prevent people from registering or voting multiple times, and how ballots are handled and counted.
The information is available on the website VotingInMontana.org, put together by election administrators. It also includes links to important forms, dates and contact information for state and local officials.
Also during Wednesday’s meeting, the Secretary of State’s Office and local election administrators shared information about how they check voter signatures on mail ballots. Each ballot must be signed, and officials compare those signatures to the signatures voters provided when they initially registered.
Stuart Fuller, the SOS’s election and voter services manager, said, typically, if a staff member questions whether the signature matches the one on file, a second one checks it. If they still can’t confirm a match, the next step is to contact the voter directly – by phone, email or mail – to try to resolve the issue.
“Where we see the signatures not being the same, the training is you reject it and verify it with the voter,” Fuller said.
In some cases, voters are required to come in to resolve the discrepancy. If officials aren’t able to reach the voter, the ballot will be rejected.
“Most of the time, our rejections get turned into pluses,” said Flathead County election manager Monica Eisenzimer. “We get a lot of people that are very thankful – they didn’t know that we actually checked them; they know the rule is that we’re supposed to check them, but they didn’t realize that someone actually verifies their signature.”
Eisenzimer said, in her office, only the most experienced staff members are tasked with checking signatures. She estimated they’ll deal with several hundred signature issues in an election cycle, out of more than 60,000 votes cast. She said only a few of those will be unable to be resolved.
Fuller said election officials get training on verifying signatures every two years. They look at points like the capital letters, the way letters trail off, letter spacing and where the signature sits on the line. He said the actual content of the signature – the use of an initial versus a full name, for example – does not have to be exactly the same in order to count.