Montana Republicans to form election integrity committee for 2023 session
(Daily Montanan) Montana Republicans will form a select committee for the 2023 legislative session to discuss the state’s elections laws and processes months after a judge struck down three voting laws they passed in 2021 that restricted voting access.
Multiple lawmakers confirmed three members from each chamber — two Republicans and a Democrat from both the Senate and House — will comprise the committee, which will move its proposals through standing administration committees. The Montana Free Press first reported the decision to create the committee.
The committee will be chaired by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, according to House and Senate Republican leadership. The other three Republicans on the committee will be Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton; Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay; and Rep. Jerry Schillinger, R-Circle.
Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, and Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, will be the Democrats on the committee, House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, and Lynch told the Daily Montanan.
The committee will be tasked with looking into Montana’s elections systems and processes to see if anything needs to be changed or buttoned up, lawmakers said. But some Republicans and Democrats have different visions of how effective it will be and what it will accomplish.
Most committee members already are working on related legislation. Although Glimm and Lynch have no elections or voting bills in the works, Manzella has 39, Stafman has three, Schillinger has two, and Phalen has one.
House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said the establishment of the committee has a “huge swell of support” from Republicans and that he sees the committee’s purpose as upholding part of the Montana Constitution that requires legislators to safeguard against abuses of electoral processes.
“That’s our job, I think. Even periodically, the legislature needs to take a little magnifying glass to our election process and just make sure that the front door’s locked and the dead bolt’s there. And if the window’s loose, we need to make sure that’s shut,” he said in an interview. “… I think this joint committee is one way to accomplish that and give our Montana voters the confidence that they deserve.”
Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, said in a written statement the committee was formed as a response to constituents who have asked lawmakers “to take a closer look at Montana’s election laws and processes.”
“This committee will be a fact-finding and idea proposing entity,” Ellsworth said in the statement. “It will supplement and will be in addition to our usual legislative committees and lawmaking procedures, not a replacement of any of the legislature’s normal processes.”
Abbott said in an interview that she and the Democratic caucus believe every Montanan eligible to vote should be able to do so. But she said she believes county clerks and local elections officials already do a good job of ensuring Montana’s elections are fair and secure.
Abbott said she thinks spending too much time on potential changes to elections is unnecessary and said her caucus would be more focused on economic issues.
“We see ‘election integrity’ as a national effort to really undermine Montanans’ right to vote,” Abbott told the Daily Montanan. “I think we’ve seen over and over again, any accusations of fraud in our elections have been proven to be false. There’s simply no evidence for that.”
Lynch said in an interview he told Senate Democratic leadership he was interested in working on the committee and that he already has faith that local elections officials are running free and transparent elections.
“We want to ensure that the voter integrity is certainly upheld, but I think a lot of it, I would wonder how much of it is truly something that Montana needs to spend a lot of time on,” he said.
Lynch said he was willing to shed light on any issues that the committee uncovers but said he also will be happy to “engage the skeptics in the room.” He said he believes there are more pressing issues lawmakers should be focused on, but is ready to address legitimate concerns.
“I think what it comes back to is we have to trust the folks that are running the elections at the local level, and if they indicate it’s a resource issue, then we certainly need to correct those issues,” said Lynch.
Three of the lawmakers on the committee — Manzella, Phalen and Schillinger — were among a handful of Republican legislators who last year conducted their own unofficial “election integrity committee” hearing in Helena.
The three were also among 10 who last year asked Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen to poll the legislature on whether they wanted to convene a special session aimed at investigating the state’s elections systems and processes.
The 10 lawmakers said in the letter there were “sufficient irregularities in election security in Montana [that] create serious doubt as to the integrity of elections in our State,” but the letter provided no evidence of fraud or irregularities. Rather, it said there were “worries and concerns” among an unidentified number of Montanans “who rank election security/integrity as the number one or number two issue in Montana.”
Less than one-third of lawmakers voted in favor of a special session in April, which would have needed more than half of lawmakers’ approval in order to happen.
“The members that we did pick out have a history in this and have rolled up their sleeves and put in work for that,” Regier said. “So they think they’re the ones that give us the best shot of having great legislation come out of that.”
The push for the special session came after a vast majority of Montana Republican lawmakers in October 2021 asked leadership to create an election integrity select committee in a letter written by Manzella, but that did not happen and led to the second effort this year.
Regier said the rules under which the committee will operate and whether it will have subpoena power have yet to be determined. Kyle Schmauch, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, said the panel could use a special counsel process to gather government documents.
In July, the Montana Republican Party adopted a new platform that continues to call into question, without evidence, the results of the 2020 presidential election won by Democrat Joe Biden. Some Republicans and other political operatives nationwide have used those claims in attempts — some successful — to pass laws restricting voting access and changing state election laws.
“We ask and encourage the members of the Montana State Legislature to do everything in their power to put the responsibility of election integrity and accountability back into the hands of We the People and that the members of the Montana Legislature also do everything in their power to complete any ongoing investigations of the 2020 General Election, and to mandate and fund a conversion to mechanical or manual vote count,” the platform says.
It also said the party believes it is “essential” that the 2021 voting measures passed by the Republican-led legislature are implemented in law, though a Yellowstone County District Court judge in September struck three of them down.
One would have changed voter identification laws, another would have eliminated Montanans’ abilities to register to vote on Election Day, and the other would have prohibited paid ballot collectors from working in the state, which the judge found would illegally harm Native American voters who live in rural areas in particular.
Jacobsen, the defendant in the case, filed a notice to appeal the decision with the Montana Supreme Court in November. The Supreme Court had previously upheld an injunction blocking those laws before the district court’s decision.
With respect to the new committee, Regier said he believed lawmakers would need to take those legal decisions into consideration but also noted it was the job of legislators to make laws and the courts to interpret them.
In October, a workgroup of elections officials that analyzed Montana’s elections systems and practices found they were “safe and secure” and released a website that aims to debunk falsehoods spread about voting and election systems integrity over the past two years.
But that has not dissuaded some from continuing to question election integrity in the Treasure State. Law enforcement was called in November when a group of election conspiracy theorists encircled election offices in Cascade County as workers were preparing provisional, military and overseas ballots for counting.
Still, local boards completed their election audits, and the Montana Board of State Canvassers finished its canvass of the November election, the final step for certification, on Nov. 29.
Regier pointed back to the Constitution when asked of concerns about the committee’s motivations after two years of unsubstantiated claims that there was widespread fraud in the 2020 and more recent elections.
“I’d say to any Democrat or Republican that puts forth the notion that we don’t need to make sure our election process is secure and double check the door — like, if it’s locked and things are going great, then we know that, and the voters know that,” he said.