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Election critics push for special legislative committee

| December 10, 2021 7:00 AM

Montana Free Press

Two Republican state lawmakers spoke to Montana’s Legislative Council Monday to reiterate an appeal made earlier this fall for the formation of a special legislative committee to investigate alleged irregularities in Montana’s 2020 election. That appeal was originally submitted to legislative leadership in an Oct. 5 letter signed by 86 Republican lawmakers.

Speaking to the council during public comment, Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Stevensville, acknowledged the challenges outlined in an Oct. 15 response from Legislative Services, namely that forming such a committee would require approval by a majority of the state House. Manzella presented the council with two possible alternatives: appoint a committee composed solely of state senators, which Senate President Mark Blasdel has the authority to do; or poll House members by phone, email and traditional mail “for the purpose of determining if they would be willing to support that vote and that special select committee.”

Manzella requested that funding be made available for the investigation from an account set aside for the Legislative Council to deal with “emerging issues,” or possibly from federal COVID-19 relief funding allocated to the state. She suggested the latter might qualify since Montana’s decision to conduct the 2020 election by mail was a direct response to the pandemic and “created a lot of the problems and allegations that we’re seeking to sort out.”

“It’s very important to recognize that this effort is actually driven by our citizens who are demanding we, this legislative body, do our job and honor our constitutional directives to ensure the purity of elections and guard against abuses of the electoral process,” Manzella said.

Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, also stepped to the lectern Monday to encourage the council to act on the request. Tschida echoed Manzella in characterizing the push for a legislative investigation of election security as “citizen-driven,” and repeated his claims of irregularities in Missoula County’s 2020 general election. Those claims are based on a citizen count of ballot affirmation envelopes conducted last January by a group called the Missoula County Election Integrity Project, of which Tschida is a member. The group, which has since been renamed the Montana Election Integrity Project, gained access to the envelopes through a public records request made by Tschida to the Missoula County Elections Office.

MISSOULA COUNTY Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman has routinely defended his office’s practices as well as the county’s 2020 election results.

“Everyone’s constituents want to see some kind of assurance that elections are fair, honest and open,” Tschida said. “And our objective, as Sen. Manzella stated, is to provide an opportunity to collect data to either prove or disprove what, if any, irregularities took place.”

No other lawmakers offered public comment Monday in support of or opposition to the request.

During his comments, Tschida listed several issues he said voters have approached him about, including their receipt of ballots addressed to long-dead relatives. Such anecdotal evidence, he said, suggests that state voter rolls “have not been well-maintained.” Republican lawmakers addressed that issue this spring by passing Senate Bill 170, which requires Montana election administrators to conduct annual maintenance of registered voter lists. Tschida’s first publicly aired his claim about irregularities in Missoula County when he testified in support of SB 170 on the House floor in March.

As to funding a special investigative committee, Tschida also recommended the Legislative Council consider tapping into federal relief funding. He estimated the effort would require roughly $50,000, which he described as a “pittance.”

JOINING MANZELLA and Tschida’s call for action was Helena resident Mary Beveridge, who made many of the same allegations of voting irregularities and flaws in existing state election laws. Beveridge said she’s been concerned about a “lack of election integrity” in Montana for the past decade, and suggested that determining a clear definition of election fraud would be a good place for the Legislature to begin its work. In 2013, Beveridge testified in favor of a bill to end same-day voter registration, identifying herself at the time as the founder of a group called the Montana Voter Integrity Project.

“We need to look at best practices across the state, across the counties,” Beveridge said. “We need to look at ballot inventory tracking. Our ballots should be treated as an asset just like you would with a cash drawer or any asset you have in a business. And when we ask for that from our election administrators, we should not be berated for asking for that information.”

The appeals came on the heels of an effort by Manzella and Tschida last month to secure Attorney General Austin Knudsen’s signature on a lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election before the U.S. Supreme Court. That proposed challenge was spearheaded by MyPillow founder and 2020 election critic Mike Lindell, who attended a Nov. 10 meeting at Knudsen’s office as Manzella’s guest, according to Knudsen spokesperson Emilee Cantrell. Manzella confirmed to Montana Free Press last week that Knudsen declined to sign on to the lawsuit.

The council did not discuss the special committee request, nor did any members respond to statements by either Manzella or Tschida. Blasdel did note that since the council has already developed a plan for spending its “emerging issues” funding, he remains unsure what resources could be used to fund the request.

“That was my concern,” Blasdel said to the room before concluding the meeting. “Not whether I can put the committee together, it’s where do I go for the resources to fund it.”