GOP lawmakers want special election integrity committee

Effort’s sponsor wrote of rooting out ‘criminal behavior’ in draft letter

By: - October 1, 2021 8:49 pm

The grand staircase at the Montana Capitol (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

This week, 86 of 98 Republicans in the Montana Legislature signed onto a letter to caucus leadership asking for a GOP-led special select committee to conduct hearings concerning election security.

The letter, first reported by the Helena Independent Record, is authored primarily by Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, a vocal proponent of election fraud claims and a popular figure in the state’s right-wing Christian conservative movement. It calls for a committee that would study “the process and security of Montana elections and propose future changes if needed; including legislation.”

Some Republicans who signed onto the letter said they believed in the security of Montana’s elections, and that they’d resist proposals for something like a 56-county audit — which Manzella said she’d support at an “election integrity symposium” in Hamilton in September — but that they nonetheless wanted to reassure constituents of that fact.

“I think that maintaining voter confidence in our electoral system is absolutely essential,” said Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, who signed the letter. “I personally believe that our electoral system in the state of Montana is sound and secure … and I think that if this committee is formed by leadership, it could go a long way towards reassuring people of that.”

Any creation of a special select committee would require the approval of Senate President Mark Blasdel and House Speaker Wylie Galt, neither of whom could be reached for comment Friday.

The request from lawmakers appears fueled by unsubstantiated theories of fraud propagated by some on the right in the fallout of President Joe Biden’s victory in November. The letter cites constituents who reached out “with questions about Montana election security” but makes no specific claims of fraud.

However, a previous version of the letter obtained by the Daily Montanan that Manzella circulated among lawmakers did make such assertions, focusing, among other claims, on unfounded allegations by Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, of discrepancies with mail-in ballots in his county. In addition to turning off some members of the caucus, the original letter also generated a response from Republican Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen.

Manzella original letter

The letter also cited information that Manzella and other lawmakers gleaned while attending an August “cyber symposium” hosted by right-wing conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell in South Dakota. Lindell was a major funder of former President Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election.

“Criminal behavior must be rooted out and remedied, or those responsible may be emboldened to find new ways to modify the outcomes of future elections,” the letter read.

It was eventually revised to the version made public on Friday, removing the specific claims of fraud, references to the Missoula headcount and mentions of the MyPillow Guy. But those changes weren’t made before Jacobsen, herself a Republican who has spearheaded proposals to clamp down on election procedures in the name of integrity, was forwarded a copy.

Friday, Jacobsen could not be reached for comment through her communications director. However, in an email obtained by the Daily Montanan, she rebutted or addressed several of the original letter’s points.

On the claim that around 6,000 ballots were mailed to voters whose ballots were undeliverable in previous elections: “A voter with an undeliverable ballot that contacts the election office or shows up to vote in a poll or mail ballot election preserves active voter status … In short, it is not irregular for a ballot to be mailed to a voter during a mail ballot election despite that the voter had a previous ballot marked as undeliverable in a previous election.”

In regards to the question about voting machines with wireless modems: “The versions of all voting machines and tabulators approved in Montana do not have built in wireless modems… A system will not be approved, certified or maintain prior authorization/certification if it is unprotected from fraudulent tampering in any form.”

Manzella, when asked about Jacobsen’s review of some of the claims in the initial letter, declined to comment.

SOS response to TM assertions

A random post-election audit conducted in 2020 under then-Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, a Republican, found no evidence of widespread fraud in Montana’s elections, a fact that’s been reasserted about the 2020 election in general by numerous court rulings and officials on both sides of the aisle at every level of government.

But election integrity has nonetheless emerged as a top priority for the Republican-dominated state Legislature, a body that only grew more red following the 2020 elections — in Montana, the presidency, as well as every statewide office, went to the GOP.

Lawmakers passed several bills this session in the name of securing elections, regulating the use of student IDs, election-day registration, mail-in ballot collection and more. Several of those policies face challenges in court, where plaintiffs argue that the bills were political mechanisms of voter suppression.

GOP-controlled legislatures across the country have taken similar measures and then some, with lawmakers in Arizona approving an election audit that after months of drama eventually concluded that Joe Biden won the presidency.

In June, Jacobsen was listed as an attendee at a workshop sponsored by the Republican Secretaries of State Committee — an offshoot of the Republican State Leadership Committee — that focused on how to implement and message different GOP-backed election proposals, as reported by the news site Documented.

“It feels like a bunch of members of the GOP are jumping onboard a national effort that’s pretty far removed from Montana and our communities,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, who added that a select committee could be a dangerous proposition that shakes confidence in elections. “They offer no evidence in their letter of anything wrong with our elections.”

Abbott also said that Manzella throwing “a rally in the Bitterroot” shouldn’t be conflated with legitimate public concern.

Even with the watering down of the letter, some Republicans still weren’t on board.

“Election integrity obviously is a good thing,” said Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby. “But on the other hand, in the state of Montana, I don’t believe we had an issue at all. To back that up, Republicans won the legislature across the board.”

Other lawmakers question the logistics of the committee — it has no set-aside funding, so how would it operate? Would it have subpoena power? Would an audit ensue? And if an audit did happen, what would result?

“Let’s say they do audit it, and they find some fraud somewhere,” Small said. “Was it a mistake? Is it negligible? Was it worth spending the time, money and effort…just to change the outcome of 10 votes where we probably won the seat anyway?”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.