Symposium demand: Everybody claim their vote

Despite fraud allegations, record supports Montana election integrity

By: - September 26, 2021 10:42 am

Former Rep.Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, and Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, stand for the national anthem at the start of the Election Integrity Symposium on Wednesday in Hamilton. (Ashley Nerbovig for the Daily Montanan.)

Some Republican Montana legislators are drumming up support for a special committee to look into the 2020 election results in Missoula and possibly all of Montana, continuing a call for scrutiny of outcomes already certified multiple times. 

Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, for one, said she does not see any downside to a meticulous audit. The Hamilton Republican was among a handful of lawmakers who participated in an event billed The Election Integrity Symposium in Hamilton last week that drew 200 people. 

“What could possibly be wrong with confirming, proving or disproving the election results?” Manzella said. 

Manzella’s belief Montana’s elections could be more secure was backed by a 2020 Montana Legislative audit of security and maintenance of state election systems. However, the report identified different concerns than the ones proponents of the election audit movement have raised.

Mike Caulfield, a Washington State University-Vanvcouver professor and digital information expert, said an election audit similar to what was done in Arizona can end up as more of a “media circus” than a legitimate path to improving election security. 

The Arizona audit helped to launder disinformation into the mainstream, he said.

“The way these things work, and I would argue intentionally so, is the people involved try to keep them in the news,” Caulfield said. “Over the course of the audit all of these unsupported allegations and questions are raised and left hanging out there.”

The Montana election was verified through a post-election audit conducted on Nov. 10, 2020 after county level verifications. On a national level, the FBI, Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Department of Justice, multiple federal and state courts, and secretaries of state from both parties have found nothing to support claims of widespread election fraud in 2020.

In fact, four days after the election, then-Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, a Republican, tweeted it was time for President Donald Trump to “Tip your hat, bite your lip, and congratulate” President Joe Biden on a win.​​ In June, Trump said he still would not concede the election

Even so, a minority of the public has continued to question the 2020 election results, and supporters of the movement gathered Wednesday in Hamilton for the Election Integrity Symposium hosted by Ravalli County Republican Women. 

In addition to Manzella, the legislators and politicians who attended the event included: Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, Rep. Steven Galloway, R-Great Falls; and Al Olszewski, candidate for Montana’s newly created Western Congressional District. Olszewski was a member of the Montana State Senate from 2017 to 2021 and ran for governor in 2020, but failed to secure the Republican nomination in the primary.

At the event, Tschida spoke about his work to organize a group in Missoula to recount the county’s ballot envelopes. The work done by his group was panned in an op-ed by the Missoula County Commissioners. While Tschida said his group worked hard to count the affirmation envelopes, the commissioners said a single hand count is not enough to determine the accuracy of the election. The commissioners described a “multi-step procedure to confirm the voter to whom a ballot was issued is the person who voted it.” This includes scanning the ballot barcode and verifying the signature. 

In 2020, Trump won Montana’s three electoral votes by a margin of about 16 percent. However, to supporters of the voter fraud theory in Montana, it doesn’t matter who won, Galloway said. Rather, he said, the audit effort is about securing elections for the future.

The Republican-led audit in Arizona was mentioned as similar to the model Montana legislators would follow if given the authority to examine the 2020 election. That audit concluded Friday when legislators in the Arizona State Senate announced no findings to support the election was stolen by Biden. However, in the Montana First Audit Chat on Telegram, Roy McKenzie, who runs a website that promotes the election fraud narrative, was already undermining the audit results in Arizona. What he and those involved in the Missoula Election Integrity Project want is a full canvass done connecting every vote cast to a live person. 

Jane Rectenwald, longtime Missoula resident and member of the project, described what this would entail. Volunteers would take the names and addresses of every person who voted in the election and go around Missoula knocking doors to confirm each one is a real person, said Rectenwald, who attended the forum and said that process is the only evidence she will accept. The volunteers who knock doors must believe in the constitution and have voted, she said. 

During the five-hour long symposium, it became clear why anything less than everyone in the state raising their hand to claim their vote will not satisfy people entrenched in the voter fraud theory. David Clements, a suspended New Mexico State University professor, promoted the idea that no court has done an examination of voter fraud on the merits. 

However, while the U.S. Supreme Court tossed out the voter fraud case brought by Texas’ Attorney General Office because it lacked standing, other judges allowed lawsuits over the election to take a thorough look at evidence. For example, in Antrim County, Michigan, a court required forensic images of voting machines be turned over to plaintiffs. The court found no election fraud.  

Couy Griffin, founder of Cowboys for Trump and a county commissioner in New Mexico, spoke at the symposium about his time in jail after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Griffin described the “mental torture of being in solitary confinement.” He pushed for better conditions for the people still incarcerated after the attack on the Capitol that left five dead and more than 500 people facing federal charges, including at least two Montanans. Former Vice-President Mike Pence affirmed Biden’s election following the assault. 

Douglas Frank, a Cincinnati-area chemist and mathematician, delivered the keynote address, telling the crowd the election was predetermined by someone he identified just as “they.” 

“Registration rolls are being filled up artificially all across the country to give them phantom voters, and they are using the 2010 census to do that,” Frank said, to wide applause from the audience. 

When Frank’s theory was presented in an Antrim County lawsuit, a PolitiFact reporter did an indepth dive on whether it would be possible for such extensive tampering of voter rolls. David Becker, founder and executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, told PolitiFact that to commit fraud on that level would leave evidence that would be discovered in the course of a normal audit of election tabulators. 

After the meeting, Manzella was pleased with the turnout for the Election Integrity Symposium. She said she received a lot of positive feedback from people who attended, especially regarding Frank. Manzella also acknowledged that people who believe the election was fixed are “still struggling to prove” what individual or group was involved. 

At the symposium she lent credibility to Frank’s theory and said she researched it herself. Representing what the people in her district want is something Manzella takes “very seriously,” she said. 

“So often politicians get elected and then seem to start working for the state instead of the people,” Manzella said. “And the people, quite frankly, resent that.”

Near the end of the symposium, she passed around the petition for people to sign so she could show the Montana senate president as well as the speaker of the house her constituents want a special select committee.

The petition read: “We, the undersigned wish to have a special select committee appointed to conduct hearings to listen to testimony that will either prove or disapprove (sic) alleged discrepancies in the 2020 election in Missoula County and, potentially, in other areas of Montana.”

A special select committee would give legislators subpoena power as well as funding to conduct voter canvassing, Manzella said. 

Andy Larsen, from Hamilton, was well versed in the theories presented at the symposium. When Frank went up to speak, Larsen leaned over and said, “Write down ‘2010 Census.’” When Larsen is researching 2020 election fraud claims, he’s often sitting beside his wife in her hospice bed. He watched the 2020 election results from his own Montana hospital bed after breaking both his lower legs and said he will listen if someone tells him they don’t think the election was stolen by Biden.

But based on his research of Frank and others, Larsen said he believes the election was fraudulent. He doesn’t look at a single source, he said. He conducted a thorough investigation, like the police officer he used to be, he said. He signed Manzella’s petition. 

The answers and conclusions peddled by people like the speakers at the symposium can give people a sense of enhanced status, Caulfield said. In rumor research, the biggest reason to share a rumor is because people want to be perceived as “a person in the know,” Caulfield said. 

“You’re showing, hey, look, I got access to information that you don’t,” Caulfield said. “It really does play on this idea of direct verification, that you’re just going to be able to download a spreadsheet from somewhere and plug in a couple of numbers and come to a conclusion.”

It is a really attractive part of these theories, Caulfield said.

However, the unsupported rhetoric about voter fraud getting spread in the mean time may be difficult to walk back. Matthew Roth, a Florence man who attended the symposium, said it would require an “overwhelming” amount of evidence to convince him.

Processes exist for identifying and securing elections that do not have to undermine people’s trust and faith in elections, Caulfield said. 

Montana legislative audit recommendations from 2020: 

  • Clarifying and setting standards for election information security and physical security in statute
  • Clarifying election security measures to help counties understand what is needed to secure voting systems
  • Creating a single IT Security Analyst position to oversee election security and agency-wide security
  • Establishing a statewide maintenance program to ensure timely verification and updates of the statewide voter registration database. 

“If you just pull fire alarms around every building in your district to get the fire department to come and see if there is any fire, it’s not going to result in less burning buildings down,” Caulfield said. “It’s going to result in more buildings burning down, because it floods the zone with so much nonsense.”

The audit published by the Montana legislature in August 2020 was one such process. The auditors reviewed physical security of elections and technology assets, such as tabulators, USB flash drives, the computer disconnected from the internet and internet-connected computers. The auditors found inconsistencies between counties in how they met security standards. 

“While this indicates risks exist, it does not indicate where risks have been exploited,” according to the report.

For instance, auditors found that as of March 2020, 25 counties had not taken security awareness training. 

“It is clear that close to half of the county election officials may not be aware of important security controls and the risks facing elections today,” according to the audit.

At the time, Secretary of State Stapleton concurred with the findings in the audit and said his office would take steps to implement the recommendations. In his letter about the report, he thanked auditors for their professionalism and willingness to discuss recommendations.

“The Office of the Secretary of State regards the audit process as an opportunity to improve the agency’s operations and performance,” Stapleton wrote.

This story has been corrected to reflect that Manzella is a senator Rep. Brad Tschida’s group counted affirmation envelopes, not ballots or secrecy envelopes.

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Ashley Nerbovig
Ashley Nerbovig

Ashley Nerbovig is a journalist whose previous stops include the Missoulian, The Billings Gazette and the Detroit Free Press, where she covered the 2020 election and the topics of misinformation and disinformation. She went to the University of Montana's school of journalism.