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Study: In Missoula County, confidence in elections is high

(Daily Montanan) Buckle in for this one: In Missoula County, 91% of voters express confidence in elections, according to a University of Montana study based on poll results after November 2020.

You may have heard some allegations — unproven — of election fraud since then in Montana and beyond. Despite the claims, Rep. Geraldine Custer, a Forsyth Republican who served as an elections administrator for 36 years, agreed many people beyond Missoula County probably have a similar feeling their local elections also were conducted fair and square.

“There’s no monkey business going on, and there’s so many safety things,” Custer said.

This month, Christina Barsky, assistant professor at the UM Baucus Institute in the Department of Public Administration and Policy, discussed the reasons she believes the poll results and study show the number of people who don’t have strong or complete confidence in the Missoula election are a minority, 9 percent. The confidence index is based in part on a poll with a 3.71 percent margin of error.

One of the related studies by UM scholars notes that Democrats express higher confidence in election administrators than Republicans do. Missoula County is generally more liberal than the rest of the state, and the confidence level corresponds.

But in Montana, Barsky said communities are small: “And the distance between the voter and the elections office and an elections official is not a lot. It might be your neighbor.”

How voters see the motivations of people who work elections also are a factor, she said. Generally, Barsky said the demographic of an elections worker is someone who is older, more likely female, whiter than the general population, and not very representative of the population as a whole.

“But they are friendly people that help you, and they are really motivated by civic duty,” she said. “ … They do it not because they’re trying to rig the system but because they believe they should give back to society.”

The Department of Public Administration and Policy team started running the poll long before former President Donald Trump, a Republican, decried the 2020 election results when voters sent Democrat and now President Joe Biden to the White House. A recent election “audit” in Arizona by Trump supporters cost $6 million, found no evidence of fraud, and showed Biden won in a fairly conducted election.

In Montana, a majority of Republican lawmakers have called for hearings on election security too. Custer, who said she’s “on the wrong side of the road” when it comes to elections and her party, said she signed the letter calling for hearings because she wants voters who have questions to gain their confidence back.

“There is no need for an audit,” Custer said. “The money? It would be like throwing it into the wind. That would be crazy.”

In Missoula, the study that showed high confidence in the local elections came about after conversations that started in 2015. At the time, a plan was underway to consolidate polling places, and Barksy said the Missoula County Elections Office asked the Department of Public Administration and Policy for help figuring out what voters wanted: “Is this the right move? What do voters need to feel secure?”

Since then, Missoula County hired a new elections administrator, and Barsky said Bradley Seaman wanted to understand if voters were feeling more or less confident in elections over time, and know where they got their information about candidates and issues.

The outcome of the conversations with Missoula County included a poll in early 2016 (following the 2015 municipal and special election and prior to the federal election) and a poll following the 2020 federal election. Additionally, Barsky and Department Chair Sara Rinfret conducted a 2017 statewide survey and published a corresponding study with a confidence index in the International Journal of Public Administration.

Barsky shared results from the 2020 poll in advance of publication in academic literature; in general, she said voter confidence stayed at 91 percent overall, but the portion of voters who feel strong confidence has grown.

Barsky figured several factors can account for the confidence. For one thing, in 2020, elections took place by mail, but that method wasn’t a big shift in Missoula. Secondly, she said people in Montana are active in their communities.

“We are a highly civically engaged state and community, and we have 600 election judges in Missoula County, and those are our friends and neighbors,” Barsky said.

She said she would hypothesize that confidence in election outcomes might be even higher in more rural counties. In some ways, she said classic political science theory is at work.

“I like my congressman, but I hate congress, right?” Barsky said.

Custer agreed that familiarity engenders confidence, and on the other hand, she said people who are “hammering away” at elections “don’t know anything about it.” She also said they play a dangerous game.

“Pick on the media. Pick on the elections process,” she said. “Start undermining everything our government is based on. They’re picking on the third branch. We’re going to end up with a problem in this country if somebody doesn’t wake up.”

Custer also said she’s surprised at the quiet from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen given all of the security and safety measures in place in Montana: “I can’t believe the secretary of state hasn’t come out on all this stuff and supported (election integrity).”

Custer agreed that in Montana, people see election workers at church, the ballgames and the post office, and election administrators want to get it right; if they don’t, they’ll hear from those people.

“You don’t want the local paper saying you screwed something up on the election,” Custer said.