‘Practically a unicorn’: Profs say voter fraud allegations in Phillips Co. not part of larger issue

Two women in Phillips County have been accused of falsifying voter registration forms

By: - February 14, 2022 12:00 pm

The Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana. The building was built in 1899, and an addition completed in 1911. Eric Seidle For the Daily Montanan.

Two allegations of voter fraud in Phillips County are not indicative of widespread election insecurity but instead reinforce the dependability of current election systems, two political scientists said this week.

The charges came to light after a series of conflicting reports from the Secretary of State’s Office, which originally reported in a news release Friday before last incorrect information that the women at the center of the charges were arrested and pleaded guilty. Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office subsequently corrected the release to indicate the women had pleaded not guilty.

“People have looked so hard for (voter fraud) and found so little, (this case) should reassure people that our elections are already run with so much security and integrity,” said Jeremy Johnson, associate professor of political science at Carroll College.

After the election, complaints from Dodson residents led to an investigation of the women’s voting records.

On Jan. 11, the Phillips County Sheriff’s Office referred misdemeanor Deceptive Election Practices charges against Grace O. Albia and Jannet Benitez Zeta for prosecution. Both women are Philippine citizens in the United States on work visas, making them ineligible to vote in U.S. elections. Allegations from the Phillips County Attorney say the women claimed to be U.S. citizens on voter registration forms.

According to a press release from the Secretary of State’s Office, the two women voted in the 2021 mayoral race in Dodson, which was won by only two votes. Both women pleaded not guilty to the charges at their initial appearances and have omnibus hearings set for Feb. 23, according to the district justice court clerk.

Contrary to original reports from the Secretary of State’s Office, the Phillips County Attorney is investigating the case and not Attorney General Austin Knudsen.

Given the small scale of the election, it’s unlikely that this is a case of malicious manipulation of the voting system in the way that Republicans have been alleging in recent years, said Paul Pope, an associate professor of political science at Montana State University-Billings.

“Usually, instances of voter fraud have minimal impact on the election,” he said. “If this were a county-wide election, it probably would not be enough to change the election. I am almost certain the election officials dropped the ball in this case, and situations where this kind of fraud happens are incredibly rare, practically a unicorn.”

Phillips County Clerk and Recorder Lynnel LaBrie declined to comment on how the women were able to vote in the election without definitely proving they were U.S. Citizens but said her office “follows the guidance from the Secretary of State and Montana State Statute” when administering elections. As of now, she said the canvas stands pending the outcome of the court cases.

Both professors said cases of voter fraud in the country and Montana are almost non-existent — a point demonstrated by Phillips County Sheriff Jerry Lytle, who told Lee Newspapers this was the first time he has cited someone for voter fraud in his 18 years as sheriff.

“Most of these kinds of cases don’t even result in charges because they are usually flagged before it gets to this point,” Pope said. “And regardless of the circumstance, it can be corrected.”

According to records shared with the Daily Montanan, the votes cast by the women were counted in the nonpartisan municipal mayoral race in Dodson — a town of around 100 people — where incumbent Mayor Angel Arocha defeated Glenn Dolphay 21-19. The same records show that their registrations have since been canceled.

Election officials in Montana can provisionally register voters if they do not have the necessary documentation proving their identity at the time of registering. When this occurs, the voter’s registration is flagged until they provide the required documentation.

The Legislative Chair of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, Regina Plettenberg, told Lee Newspapers that provisionally registered voters can still receive a provisional mail-in ballot, but said ballots cast by those voters are normally flagged by election administrators and do not factor into the final vote tallies until proper documentation is verified.

While voter fraud cases may be rare, Johnson said the issue has been used by Republicans to justify narrowing voting opportunities.

“We have heard so many worries about voting fraud from Republicans, I don’t think they are going to stop talking about it,” he said. “So much discussion in recent years about voting fraud is totally separated from the actual facts on the ground because there has been so much scrutiny, and it’s been so rare.” 

The charges come as GOP lawmakers push for a special committee to investigate the 2020 election results, despite instances of voter fraud in Montana being scarce. In October, 86 of Montana’s 98 Republican lawmakers signed a letter pushing party leadership in the House and Senate to appoint a special committee to investigate the 2020 election — where Montana Republicans swept top offices — citing conspiracies of widespread voter fraud.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, who is one of the authors of the letter, has long pointed to unfounded allegations of discrepancies with mail-in ballots in his county by Tschida. Missoula County Commissioners have remained steadfast that the 2o20 election went off without a hitch, and allegations levied by Tschida are baseless.

In a text message to the Daily Montanan, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, another sponsor of the letter, said the case in Dodson is an example of the state’s challenge law being put to good use as well as an example of an election security shortcoming.

“It’s my opinion that we need a more comprehensive and seamless way of confirming citizenship in the critical infrastructure controls on our election process,” she wrote. “This vulnerability, as well as a number of others we’ve identified, is the reason we’ve asked that a Special Legislative Committee be appointed to review our election laws and process.”

She continued saying that she and others want to “evaluate the certification process of the tabulators to be sure it’s comprehensive enough for today’s technology.”

Manzella has been a loud voice in calling for an investigation into the state’s 2020 election results and was one of six state GOP lawmakers to attend an August “cyber symposium” hosted by right-wing conspiracy theorist and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell in South Dakota. The Montana Free Press reported in December that Members of Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s office also met with Lindell in November, while he was crusading for attorneys general across the country to challenge the 2020 elections results at the U.S. Supreme Court, which has denied hearing multiple cases on the subject.

But Johnson and Pope said this case shows the opposite of what people like Manzella and Lindell are calling for.

“This case proves we already have plenty of election security,” Pope said. “The level of voter fraud is not even a quarter of 1% percent nationwide. “Even with zero change to existing law or process, you are not going to see this kind of situation like we have seen in Dodson on any level that will have an impact other than in a small race in a small town.”

A post-election audit conducted in 2020 by former Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton found no evidence of widespread fraud in Montana’s elections, something that has been reinforced by court rulings and officials at multiple levels of government. Still, the GOP made it a priority during the 67th Legislature to pass laws they deemed necessary to further secure election integrity in the state, prompted in part by Secretary of State Jacobsen.

With GOP support, the Legislature passed a handful of laws regulating elections like restricting ballot collection efforts, ending same-day voter registration, and limiting political activity on college campuses. In the wake of the session, union groups, the Democratic Party and others challenged five of the laws in various district courts. A Lewis and Clark County District judge ruled last week that the provision in Senate Bill 319 that limited political activity at colleges was unconstitutional. 

And, Johnson said, GOP politicians may use this case to rally their base further: “Anything (related to voter fraud) captures people’s attention right now … politicians are priming people, and the whole issue is being moved by not real facts on the ground.”

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. Keith is no longer a reporter with the Daily Montanan.