Study: In Missoula County, confidence in elections is high

Rep. Custer: ‘There’s no monkey business going on’

By: - October 24, 2021 10:09 am

A sign reminds voters they need photo ID to vote at polling station at Hillsboro Presbyterian Church on Election Day, November 6, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Buckle in for this one: In Missoula County, 91 percent 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.

Highlights from 2020 poll

  • 698 Missoula County registered voters participated in the study
  • 29 percent of the sample reported they were within the ages of 27-46 years of age
  • The primary reason why respondents vote is because they believe it is their civic responsibility
  • Approximately 80 percent of respondents were very satisfied with their vote by mail voting experience
  • 64 percent would vote by mail again if paid postage was provided, but this varies by age and gender
  • 89 percent of respondents believe Missoula County elections are free of fraud

Source: UM general election experience poll 2020

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.”

Christina Barsky, University of Montana Department of Public Administration and Policy. (Provided by UM.)

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.

Rep. Geraldine Custer, R-Forsyth. (Provided by the Montana Legislature.)

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.

‘Fighting words’

Question election integrity to Rep. Geraldine Custer?

“It’s fighting words for me,” she said. “The thing we value most is our ability to elect people freely and fairly without pressure.”

The sentiment doesn’t mean every voter walks away satisfied, of course. When Custer had to enforce voter ID requirements in small precincts, she encountered some pushback.

“Those old cowboys would get so mad. ‘You know who I am,’” she said. “It’s changing the law. You have to do it.”

She recalled one cowboy who refused to vote, and she felt badly about it, but she said the bottom line is that elections are safe, and those who say otherwise are uninformed.

Seaman, elections administrator in Missoula County, said the county was excited to see high confidence in the process, and it has found that a lack of understanding contributes to distrust. The process is complex, he said, and sometimes, people get bad information.

“The problem is sometimes the information that you’re getting does not come from a reputable source, like an elections professional,” he said.

To address voters’ questions, Seaman said the Elections Office was approved to spend $20,000 to produce videos that show the elections processes. He also said the Elections Office has invited legislators to take tours at public events to demonstrate how elections work.

“Specifically, we invited Rep. Brad Tschida because he has made some pretty public claims that there have been improprieties in the process,” Seaman said. “And unfortunately, he did not reply or come to any of the public events.”

Seaman said to date, none of the local legislators have taken him up on the tour, he said, although he’s received letters from some expressing confidence in the elections.

Tschida, a Missoula Republican, said he has served as a poll watcher, so he has been part of the process. He said he was skeptical of the study that showed high confidence among voters in Missoula County, especially given some of the national polling.

“He who phrases the question wins the debate,” Tschida said. “ … I think we need to be cautious of what polling data we look at.”

In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers in Montana worked to change election legislation, and Barsky said their efforts raise the question of how in touch those legislators are with what citizen voters think. Some new election laws are being challenged in court.

But Regina Plettenberg, longtime elections administrator in Ravalli County, said people who have questions just need to be more involved in the process.

“We’ve always had people that have concerns about election security,” said Plettenberg, who has worked elections for 23 years and held the elected post for 15 years. “That isn’t new. And I think with everything that happened nationally, I don’t think it’s surprising that some people do have concerns, and I think just as elections administrators, we need to work with folks to educate, to include them in the process, so that they can have more confidence in elections.”

Confidence in election administration

  • To operationalize Missoula County voters’ perceptions, the UM team recreated the 2018 index using seven, four-point Likert scale questions.
  • To reflect the change in election delivery during the 2020 general election, the team revised “I am confident that my absentee vote is counted” (2018) to ask respondents for their level of agreement with “I am confident that my mail vote is counted.”
  • Further, the team removed the 2018 variable, “I am confident that elections support a stable democracy,” and replaced it with “I am confident in the vote by mail process.”
  • In the end, the team used seven variables to create a confidence index in 2020: I am confident that my mail vote is counted, I am confident that my confidential information is kept secure, I am confident that Missoula County is free of voter fraud, I am confident in the vote by mail process, I am confident that election results are accurate, I believe that ballots are secure and unchanged, and I believe that voter rolls are accurate.
  • We find that 60 percent of voters express complete confidence, 31 percent strong confidence, 9 percent some confidence, and 1 percent no confidence (percents ≠ 100 due to rounding). In the end, 91 percent indicate complete or strong confidence in this study.
  • The biggest change seen between 2016 and 2020 is in those that report strong confidence: 38 percent to 60 percent.

Source: Assistant professor Christina Barsky, UM Department of Public Administration and Policy

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”

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