An election official works in Missoula County, Montana (Photo by Martin Kidston).
An election-conspiracy group backed by a Trump-related think-tank is suing the Missoula County elections office over the 2020 election, even after local Republicans found no evidence of fraud.
A week ago, John R. Lott and the Missoula County Election Integrity Project filed a complaint in Missoula County District Court against the Missoula County Elections Office for disposing video recordings and certain documents related to the November 2020 vote count. However, in previous challenges, the Elections Office has stated it followed Montana law and the group failed to make its request before the state deadline.
Missoula County communications manager Allison Franz said the county couldn’t comment yet because the county elections office hadn’t been served the complaint, so no one has seen it.
In its complaint, the self-professed Election Integrity Project said it notified the elections office in October 2020 that it would use the vote-count video in its investigation of the Nov. 3 all-mail-in election. Later, on Dec. 22, the Project asked to view the video, but the elections office said it was no longer available.
The elections office publicly live-streamed the two-day vote count so anyone could watch it and kept the video for 30 days, according to an elections office document. The state requires elections offices to keep video for 30 days. Missoula county’s policy is to retain video for no more than 60 days to conserve server bandwidth, particularly after all meetings went online due to COVID.
“The video was automatically destroyed after being retained for 30 days, meeting both the county and state retention policies. The request for video occurred after this 30-day time frame.”
According to the complaint, the Project insists that vote-count video and other documents be preserved for 22 months, citing a federal law that requires elections officers to keep voter registrations and applications to vote for 22 months.
The Project said it wanted to review the video because it claimed to have found a vote discrepancy that supported their claim of ballot stuffing. When it was allowed access to the election ballots in January 2021, the Project claimed to have counted 4,592 more ballots than there were privacy envelopes, resulting in a 6% error.
That’s not what the Missoula County Republican Central Committee found when it conducted its own ballot count this March. The Central Committee found a discrepancy of 71 ballots, a margin of error of 0.09%.
State Rep. Brad Tschida, a Project member, scoffed at the Central Committee’s results in March, telling the Associated Press that “any outcome other than the outcome of the first count would be highly suspicious.”
The Project is still touting a 6% to 7% discrepancy in its court documents.
Missoula County elections administrator Bradley Seaman in March said that the election canvas board, the Secretary of State’s Office and a post-election equipment audit would have found an error as large as 4,600 votes. If the results were really off so badly, the Project should have challenged them in court, Seaman said.
Now, the Project is taking the elections office to court, but it isn’t challenging the results. In addition to video retention, the Project protested that the elections office said in May it wasn’t keeping voter registration information from November 2020 if it had new data to update the information.
The Project’s claims are an example of the continuing fallout from former President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations of voter fraud after he lost the 2020 election. The allegations, dubbed “The Big Lie,” sparked the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and pro-Trump groups around the country have attacked U.S. elections by challenging various processes just enough to raise doubt and spend taxpayer dollars.
Montana’s electoral-college delegation voted for Trump, so another 4,600 votes – had they existed – wouldn’t have changed anything.
The Missoula County Election Integrity Project lawsuit is being supported by the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank, America First Policy Institute. The America First Policy Institute was started by group of 40 former Trump administration officials three months after Trump left office, according to TheHill.com. Institute attorney Joshua J. Campbell is listed on the court documents and was the Trump campaign’s legal advisor during the 2016 campaign.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Institute is supposed to be nonpartisan, but Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband and former White House adviser Jared Kushner are informal advisers, according to Axios. The Institute recently started working with “America First Works,” which formed “as a new organization to work closely with AFPI” and as “an extension of AFPI, it is entirely focused on advancing policy at all levels of government, including to promote economic opportunity, school choice, affordable healthcare, foster care reform, election integrity, and criminal justice reform,” according to Ashley Hayek, a Trump campaign veteran who has a leadership role at America First Works and is also chief engagement officer for the think tank.
The Institute’s priorities include criminal justice reforms, fighting back against Big Tech companies and lowering taxes. The group also lists “election integrity” as a priority, and it has supported voting laws recently passed in Texas that critics say restrict access to the ballot box.
Lott, 63, is apparently another of Montana’s recent immigrants. Court documents say Lott voted in Missoula in the November 2020 election and has worked with the Project since then. But right after the election, he was reported as working as a grant programs researcher in the U.S. Department of Justice, according to Politico.
Lott is best known as a pro-gun pundit, having written the 1998 book, “More Guns, Less Crime,” and a slew of reports, articles and op-eds advocating for lifting gun control laws. Prior to that, he ran the nonprofit Crime Prevention Research Center, which regularly publishes pro-gun blog posts and has a board that features avid National Rifle Association supporters, former rocker Ted Nugent and David Clarke, former sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wis. He also bounced around several universities, teaching law and economics after earning his degrees from UCLA.
But Lott occasionally veered into election-security issues before he landed in Missoula. After Trump falsely claimed millions of Americans voted illegally in the 2016 presidential election, Lott appeared as a witness before Trump’s “election integrity” commission in 2017 urging use of the national gun background check database to verify voter rolls. Lott also alleged that absentee ballots in the 2016 North Carolina gubernatorial election were fraudulently handled. In a 2015 Fox News op-ed, he claimed Sen. Al Franken won the 2008 Minnesota election only because felons were allowed to vote for him.
None of the claims were substantiated.
Lott has been called out for playing loose with the truth when he was caught impersonating people on the Internet to support his claims. Much as Trump posed as his own public relations employee John Miller, Lott used the pseudonym “Mary Rosh” for three years to praise himself in the early 2000s, according to the Washington Post. He also authored a pro-gun Fox News op-ed using the identity of stalking victim Taylor Woolrich.
However, Lott is still publishing op-eds about Missoula in national publications like Newsweek, the conservative Heritage Foundation’s The Daily Signal, and The Federalist, where he backs Tschida’s conspiracy theory to explain the lack of fraud evidence by suggesting Missoula County messed with the ballots between the Project’s count and that of the GOP committee.
“Without the video, there is no way to determine how many envelopes were opened on November 3, 2020. The erasure of the video doesn’t instill confidence,” Lott wrote in an April 18 op-ed.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at [email protected].
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