‘Safe and Secure:’ Elections Workgroup gives update following system examination

By: - October 26, 2022 4:53 pm

A roll of voting stickers (Photo via Pxhere.com | Public Domain).

Montana’s elections practices were found to be “safe and secure” following an examination from a workgroup made up of representatives from organizations and stakeholders across the state.

“Both our election administrators and the many volunteers that execute this system are to be commended for their efforts in operating the system that is well put together,” said workgroup member Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, during a State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee meeting on Wednesday.

The group produced an 18-page Frequently Asked Questions document covering topics from ballot security and voting equipment to how to register to vote. The document included details such as paper ballots are secret and voter tabulation machines are tested prior to elections and subject to random audit, according to the FAQs.

In their work, the group also created a website with the information from the FAQ at https://votinginmontana.org/.

Bedey said suggested areas within election integrity for potential legislation include codifying that election tabulation machines not be allowed to hook up to the internet. Machines currently do not connect to the internet, and Bedey said that it’s a rule in contracts as of now, but that it would be a good idea to “reassure the public.”

“Montana’s vote counting machines cannot be hooked to the internet as it stands now,” Bedey said. “It’s an absurd conspiracy to suggest otherwise.”

Another suggestion was criminalizing tampering with vote counting machines.

“Montana’s election system is both sound and secure, and we must remain vigilant to keep it that way,” Bedey said.

There has been an increase nationally and in Montana in interest surrounding election security after former President Donald Trump denied the results of the 2020 election, closely followed by the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Last week, Trump was subpoenaed by the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 commission.

Montana’s Elections and Voter Services Manager Stuart Fuller presented to the SAVA interim committee on how the state conducts ballot signature verification. Fuller said a voter’s primary signature is taken from their voter registration and then can be compared to signatures on petitions or absentee ballots for verification.

Flathead County Clerk and Recorder and Election Office Manager Monica Eisenzimer said that in her experience, when ballots had to be rejected, a lot of people were actually thankful.

“They didn’t know that we actually checked them. They know the rule is that we’re supposed to check them, but they didn’t realize that somebody actually verifies their signature,” Eisenzimer said.

She said that people don’t realize the office can tell if a parent has signed a child’s ballot, and that when they call, people normally admit it or they never hear from them.

“So we know it’s working,” she said.

One person of note Eisenzimer remembers having to call is former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and now candidate for Montana’s first congressional district Ryan Zinke. She said when he got elected to serve in Congress as Montana’s at-large district representative, he changed his signature.

She said he was asked to change his signature when he was first elected to Congress because it wasn’t readable, and it has stayed the same since.

Fuller said that not every signature from the same person is identical, and that there is a method to comparing signatures, which involves:

  • Whether the capital letters match
  • Whether the letters tail off similarly
  • Whether letter spacing is similar
  • The overall appearance is similar
  • Whether the relationship to the signature line is similar

He also recognized that people do go through life events that would impact signature consistency.

“Unfortunately, people have strokes, and people like me break their arm and have difficulty writing with maybe the right hand, and so their signature’s going to change, doesn’t mean they’re fraudulent or that somebody’s trying to vote illegally,” Fuller said. “The training is you reject it and verify it with the voter.”

Fuller said rejected absentee ballots turn into provisional ballots, which are counted separately with extra review, after 3 p.m. on the Monday after Election Day.

He clarified for the committee that residency as it pertains to voting requires being a U.S. citizen, over the age of 18 and having lived in the county for at least 30 days. If the voter is registered in another state, the voter lets the Secretary of State’s office know, and it will send a cancellation notice for their previous registration.

Fuller said his office gets cancellations from Montanans who move elsewhere. His office sends a notice to the voter to see if they have moved; if there is no response they go inactive, and if they don’t vote in two federal elections, they get canceled, he explained.

Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, asked about same-day voter registration and whether it was possible to verify their information on the spot, to which Fuller said it would “almost be impossible.”

“So you do take the voter’s word that they’re signing that application under penalty of fraud, and also federal penalties, for voting twice in an election and people have been prosecuted for that,” Fuller said. “We try to make sure that barriers to voting are not large and that we prevent fraud.”

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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.