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Nine months later, GOP group, Missoula County still battling over ballot count

Missoula voters wait in line on Election Day to cast a ballot. (Martin kidston/Missoula Current file)

(KPAX) It’s been almost nine months since the 2020 election, but in Missoula County, a Republican-led group is still sparring with local election officials over alleged “discrepancies” in ballot counts – claims that county officials say are bunk.

“We have the (ballot) envelopes, we have the documentation; this error does not exist,” Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman told MTN News.

The GOP-led group, calling itself the Missoula County Election Integrity Project, has made several claims of problems with mail-in ballots during the 2020 general election – including one suggesting that nearly 4,600 ballots, or 6 percent of the total votes cast, aren’t tied to registered voters.

While county election officials have rebutted these claims, the group has continued to make extensive requests for ballot records, insisting that questions about the vote count have not been fully answered.

“We simply want to know how many ballots were brought in, how many ballots were mailed out and how many ballots were maintained,” says state Rep. Brad Tschida, a Missoula Republican spearheading the effort. “And, what the chain of custody was for those ballots, so that we can say without a shadow of a doubt there was no issue with the election.”

Even former President Donald Trump – who continues to make false and disproven claims about a “stolen election” – has weighed in on the Missoula voting battle, mentioning the local Republicans’ claims in his June 26 speech in Ohio.

“In Montana, over 6 percent of a certain county’s mail-in ballots are missing evidence to prove that they were legitimate or not,” he said.

Missoula County officials say they’re happy to provide public documents, as allowed by law, and have anyone review their ballot-counting and security procedures.

But they’ve also reached a point where they’re saying if Tschida and members of his group believe voting irregularities occurred, they should take it to court – where evidence would show the allegations are false.

“This is an area where, if there is truly an error, this would be brought up and contested in a court of law,” Seaman says. “That hasn’t been done because there is no merit behind these allegations.”

“We have no reason to think there were any problems whatsoever,” adds Missoula County Commission Chair David Strohmaier.

Tschida said the Election Integrity Project is funded by private donations from “everyday citizens,” who had questions about past ballot-counting in Missoula County, a Democratic stronghold.

Last October, Tschida and Missoula lawyer Quentin Rhoades contacted Seaman, initially, to ask about the process for altered ballots, and then also to view and count all “affirmation” envelopes tied to mail-in ballots in the 2020 general election, which was Nov. 3.

Like most Montana counties, Missoula County conducted an all-mail election last year during the Covid-19 pandemic, sending ballots to every active registered voter. When those votes are returned, the “affirmation” envelope is signed by the voter and contains the actual ballot, which is inside a sealed “secrecy envelope” inside the affirmation envelope.

Election officials check the signature on the affirmation envelope to make sure it matches that of the registered voter who was issued the ballot. These envelopes also have a bar code unique to that voter.

Once the affirmation envelope’s signature is confirmed and checked against a statewide data base of registered voters, the secrecy envelope is removed and stored in a secure room, until the ballots are extracted and counted, to preserve the secrecy of people’s votes.

Tschida said his group wanted to count the affirmation envelopes to see if the number of signed envelopes matched the number of votes cast, to ensure no “fraudulent ballots” were inserted into the process and counted.

That count finally occurred Jan. 4 at a building on the Missoula County Fairgrounds, by 20 volunteers gathered by Tschida’s group. Seaman and other county election officials were present, to ensure the envelopes didn’t leave their custody.

Tschida said the group counted 67,899 envelopes – or 4,592 fewer than the total number of 72,491 ballots counted.

That discrepancy indicates that several thousand ballots had no proven link to a specific registered voter, or chain of custody, and the county hasn’t explained that difference, Tschida told MTN News earlier this month.

Seaman told MTN News that the county validated all of the ballots it counted, and that Tschida’s counters must have made a mistake.

Seaman explained that 673 ballots had no affirmation envelope, because they are electronic ballots or other ballots from voters living overseas, Seaman says. Another 35 are from voters whose affirmation envelopes are not allowed to be seen by the public, such as undercover law officers.

As for the remaining 3,884 affirmation envelopes allegedly missing – Seaman says it’s not possible, because ballots are not accepted unless they have an affirmation envelope with a verified signature of the voter.

The envelopes and ballots go through a multi-tiered process of checking and rechecking, including against a statewide voter database, and the outcome is certified by the county and the state, he says.

“That discrepancy was not found during the canvass, was not found by the observers that were present throughout multiple areas here,” Seaman told MTN News. “We have a list of every single affirmation envelope that we have duly certified.”

Tschida says if the county believes its numbers are correct, it should agree to a “forensic audit” to determine the difference. Seaman says that would require a court order – and that the county already did a post-election audit, last November, where no such discrepancy was found.

Tschida’s group made additional records requests in May and June, including one for the purchase order for ballots in the November 2020 election, unused ballots, a list of every voter in the county, the stub number from their ballot and the original ballot stubs.

He says these latest requests are simply another attempt to verify that no invalid ballots were cast.

The unused ballots and original ballot stubs require a court order to be provided, Seaman says, and the county plans to respond this month to the other requests.

However, Seaman says the requests are “continuing forward with this false narrative that there have been widespread irregularities,” and that the county is asking Tschida’s group to pay up-front for staff time to comply with requests.

Tschida says he feels like the group is being “slow-walked” by the county, which wants to force the issue to court, rather than produce documents in a timely fashion.

“I understand we can do things legally, but is that the only answer?” he says. “That to me is almost a tacit admission of `We don’t want you to find out easily what is public record and public knowledge,’ so they’re withholding it from us.”

Seaman believes the county has been responsive, but that it’s time for his office to start working on procedures and preparation for upcoming elections – and that the 2020 process was open, secure and accurate.

“We have public observers at nearly every moment of our election,” he says. “None of the people who are here, watching the process, have had concerns. We go above and beyond to be open, making sure that all of our practices and processes are open to the public.”