Plenty of conspiracies, but few facts at large election fraud summit in Ravalli County
The crowd applauds at the conclusion of Greg Woodward’s presentation on June 5, 2023 in Ravalli County. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)
HAMILTON — Former Ravalli County Sheriff Jay Printz took the microphone during a question-and-answer period following a presentation Monday claiming election anomalies and rigging in the county during the 2020 and 2022 elections.
“Not a one of these guys here is corrupt or dishonest or doing anything illegal,” Printz said of the panel of elected officials on stage, which included county commissioners, current Sheriff Stephen Holton and Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg.
Printz said the meeting was a “big ol’ bitch session,” saying he thought there had been “a little bit of disrespect going on,” though suggesting maybe some presenters could “educate” the elected officials.
“These people are my neighbors for Christ sakes,” he said. “I grew up in this county; I’m a fourth generation Bitterrooter. How many of you can say that? Not many of you. Most of these guys been around here a long damn time, and I’ve known every one of them.”
Printz was largely in the minority of opinions Monday night at the Ravalli County Fairgrounds, with more than 250 seats filled and standing room in the back of the event space.
A car parked outside had a bumper sticker reading “Jesus 2024, Our Only Hope,” and volunteers handed out stickers in the style handed out to voters on Election Day reading “ES&S voted,” with an upside down American flag in reference to voting machines used in Montana. The crowd eventually trickled out as the nearly five-hour presentation and Q&A session continued into the evening.
Presenter Greg Woodward, who said he received a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin, gave a presentation based on the work of election denier Douglas Frank, an associate of Mike Lindell, the “My Pillow Guy.”
Frank, a high-school math teacher from Ohio, has toured the country with a similar presentation using a method he claims proves election fraud that has been debunked as reaching “meaningless” conclusions, according to a Stanford University political science professor in reporting from CNN. Election denialism took off in the U.S. after former President Donald Trump said the results of the 2020 election were fraudulent without evidence.
The FBI served Frank a search warrant following its seizure of Lindell’s cell phone last fall, as reported by the Washington Post. The Montana Free Press reported both Lindell and Frank received an audience with Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen in 2021.
Woodward said he could prove malfeasance by election machines through a “key” developed using data from Missoula County, employing the same method Frank developed, claiming voter roles were manipulated and therefore the total number of ballots was manipulated. He claimed the issue was found in just about every county in Montana.
Plettenberg said her office does a piecemeal ballot count, meaning they hand count every physical ballot that goes through the office (not every vote for every race on the ballot), and that if they received an extra ballot she would know about it.
Woodward asked if that meant she counted every single piece of paper that goes through every precinct.
“Absolutely,” she said. “And you’re welcome to come watch our process.”
Plettenberg said she’s been running elections in Ravalli County for 25 years and has been using ES&S machines throughout her tenure. She said the man who does maintenance on the machines is from Butte, and she’s been working with him for nearly two decades.
Reps. David Bedey and Michele Binkley of Hamilton and Rep. Wayne Rusk of Corvallis were among a handful of Republican legislators in attendance. Bedey told the press following the presentation that he was not persuaded there were significant problems with elections in Montana.
“The vote counting machines are not a problem,” Bedey said.
Bedey said Woodward couldn’t explain his theory as it would apply to Montana because he didn’t understand that counties count the physical paper ballots. He said he’s seen the chain-of-custody process and how the office counts a box of ballots every time they’re opened.
“How can you explain the generation of fictitious ballots unless someone’s actually generating fictitious paper ballots? Can you imagine what this conspiracy would look like?” Bedey said. “You can’t have this fictitious number of ballots because the number of ballots counted by the machine would be different than the paper count of ballots you have.”
Plettenberg said she asked for Woodward’s presentation ahead of time but did not receive it. When asked about a potential follow-up meeting to talk proposed solutions during the presentation (getting rid of the machines, no mail-in ballots, a full hand-count conducted in one day, among others), Plettenberg said she wanted to review Woodward’s findings, but didn’t see some proposals as feasible or a guarantee of accurate results.
She cited a 25% error rate with hand-counted ballots and said that when a mistake is made, the process has to start all over again — something that could happen multiple times.
One woman who wanted a specific number of volunteers Plettenberg would need for a full hand count was not fazed by the idea of having volunteers starting over multiple times or Plettenberg’s concerns over statistics around human error and keeping the election secure. After pressing multiple times, Plettenberg ballparked that she would likely need twice as much staff.
“You guys heard her, she needs double of 188. So please sign up. Let’s give her the army that she needs to do a hand count,” she said.
Other conspiracies which surfaced throughout the night included “Zuckerbucks,” mentioned during election denier Jane Rectenwald’s presentation, which centers on a $350 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg to the nonprofit Center for Technology and Civic Life during the 2020 election. Rectenwald was part of a group that alleged irregularities in Missoula County elections in 2020; the local GOP paid to investigate the claims and found no evidence of fraud, according to reporting from the Missoulian and Montana Free Press.
Election skeptics believe the money influenced the outcome of the election and the state outlawed private donations in the last legislative session citing this theory.
Some of those funds came to Montana, including Ravalli County. Plettenberg said, as she did when the bill banning such donations was heard in the Legislature, that she could account for every penny spent and was happy to discuss it.
Both Representatives Bedey and Rusk were mentioned at the end of Woodward’s presentation as sponsors of House Bill 402, which would have put in place a system to verify citizenship status before someone can register to vote. Text highlighted in bright yellow said the bill would have allowed someone whose citizenship status has not been verified to vote, which was amended out in the final text of the bill, according to the legislature’s website.
The bill failed to pass the House or Senate following a conference committee on the bill at the end of the session. The bill was opposed by extremist group the John Birch Society in Ravalli County, as well as the ACLU of Montana for different reasons, Bedey said, adding that it would have been a tough bill to implement.
“It’s disingenuous to suggest that this bill was in place to allow non-citizens to vote,” Bedey said.
The last speaker of the evening before questions was a Venezuelan-born woman named Vesna (the meeting agenda identified her only as Vesna) who is now a U.S. citizen and warned Montana and the U.S. were on the same path of corruption as her home country. She said the U.S. was on an 80-year war cycle, citing World War II, the U.S. Civil War, and the Revolution, not mentioning the more recent War in Afghanistan or Vietnam War or wars fought by the U.S. prior to the Civil War, like the Mexican-American War or the War of 1812.
“We are at war,” she said. “This is a world coup. Venezuela was a test. They test the machines in Venezuela, so they go and do it in every other country.”
She said the war wouldn’t be fought with bullets, but would stem from civil unrest and, eventually, financial demise.
“It is really important to develop a strong relationship with reality,” she said.
“If you live in la la land, with fake money, fake food, fake air, fake sex, fake this, fake that, you’re gonna suffer a lot more,” she said. “I want to have real elections, with real people, with real ballots, with real hand counting.”
A man named Greg Brookes asked current County Sheriff Holton if he saw any laws being broken based on the “irrefutable evidence” presented during the evening.
“We’re basing this on what, two hours of testimony and not necessarily investigation,” Holton said, also saying he did not see evidence Ravalli County election officials knowingly or purposely violated any Montana election law.
“We do not want a sheriff to walk into any crime, in any case, saying ‘I think something happened and I will collect evidence to support that,’” Holton said.
Brookes chimed in again, asking if he believed a law was broken, to which Holton responded, “That’s dangerous territory.”
“You do not want your sheriff to walk into any crime and collect evidence with what he already believes and disregard everything else,” Holton said.
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