Montana elections official say new statewide technology did well, expect it to be ready by 2023

Flathead County centralizing counts

By: - June 15, 2022 3:58 pm

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)

The test of a new elections system this month revealed some tweaks that need to be made, but several elections officials in Montana said they anticipate the new system will be ready in 2023 as planned.

Elections have been in the public eye in Montana and nationally the last couple of years as some people, even high ranking officials, made many unfounded allegations of fraud, but this week in Montana, people running the business of democracy reported mostly standard election practices are underway.

At least one county is phasing out old tabulation equipment. However, elections managers shared positive outcomes from tests of the new system in a couple of counties, and at the Capitol, the Montana Secretary of State’s Office outlined steps for the primary elections audit, a standard procedure.

The Audit

“Yahtzee!” said Stephanie Cote of the Montana Attorney General office. 

Cote was rolling dice Tuesday morning as part of the randomizing process the state Board of Canvassers goes through post-election to select precincts to audit elections.  

At the meeting, Secretary of State’s Office elections manager Stuart Fuller said 40 out of Montana’s 56 counties will be audited, as is standard procedure, with five exemptions due to potential recounts. The exemptions are Flathead, Lake, Lewis and Clark and Teton counties due to the close Public Service Commission District 5 race.

Fuller said the board will meet again in two weeks for the state canvass.  

Elections System Test

This primary, Flathead County was one of a handful of counties participating in elections management systems testing as the state works to transition to the new system, electMT, from the old system, MT Votes. 

During the parallel test, where counties ran ballots through both systems, Flathead County only partially participated, but Election Services Manager Monica Eisenzimer said it went well. 

Eisenzimer said they discovered some issues between the new and old systems, things she said they wouldn’t have known if they had not done testing, like how the local technology communicates with the state system. 

President of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders Treva Nelson in Toole County said that they were still working on inputting ballots into the new system as part of the parallel test, as they didn’t have time to input everything on the same day. But she said that electMT was a good system, and she believes it will be ready when they implement it for the rest of the state next year.

Cascade County backed out of parallel testing, according to Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore, as she had a family emergency and could not dedicate the time necessary to implement the test.

The Secretary of State’s Office will review and discuss the parallel testing procedures following the completion of the primary election process – the post-election audit, county canvass, state canvass and any potential recounts, said communications director Richie Melby in an email Tuesday.

Old Machines, Late Nights

Flathead County also took the leap to consolidate their election management to a central count due to aging machines in the county, as the Flathead Beacon reported on election night.

Eisenzimer, who confirmed the consolidation, said the machines, ES&S Model 100s, were more than 20 years old and the county opted to phase them out and pivot to central tabulation. 

She said other bigger counties also centralize their counting throughout the state, so the process isn’t novel but does have a learning curve. 

In Kalispell, the last of the unofficial vote count came in just past 3 a.m. on June 8, which Eisenzimer attributed to counting and resolving absentee ballots. She said she didn’t think the centralized count was more time consuming than their previous system.

Cascade County, which also does a centralized vote tabulation, submitted its final unofficial count at nearly 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, with election officials spending nearly 24 hours at the Montana ExpoPark in total.

Moore attributed the long night to the counting of write-in ballots that needed to be resolved. She said the machine, an ES&S DS950, only tallies up the ovals and doesn’t read write-ins, so election judges need to read write-ins by hand tabulating them in order to count write-in votes by hand, which takes time.

Lincoln County also had a long week and garnered national attention after facing complications in voter tabulation. Ballots were printed the wrong size to be put through the counting machine, the Associated Press reported last week.

This problem meant the ballots needed to be counted by hand, and it delayed results for the tight race in the Western Congressional District Republican primary between former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and former state Sen. Al Olszewski.

The hand count finished on Thursday and the AP called the race for Zinke not long after.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.