Officials developing new election procedures after ballots briefly went missing

| January 8, 2021 7:00 AM

A ballot box was left temporarily unaccounted for in the days after the November election. Officials stressed that the votes it contained were tabulated within the timeframe allowed by the state and were never at risk of being tampered with.

County Administrator Patrick McFadden allowed that a mistake occurred, but said he viewed the incident in a positive light considering it was caught and rectified in time.

“Our county election department did exactly the right thing,” he said after the incident came to public light on Jan. 5.

The Western News confirmed the error after comparing the tabulation of ballots on Nov. 4 with the final figures submitted to the state.

Officials left the box at the North Lincoln County Annex in Eureka rather than bringing it to the county courthouse in Libby where votes were processed on Election Day. County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) said Chris Nelson, former election administrator, recovered the ballots Nov. 6. Officials were unable to immediately confirm exactly how many ballots were in the box.

County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) said he heard about the missing ballots when residents in the Eureka area began calling to ask why their votes had not been counted. Many of the residents Letcher spoke with were audibly upset.

“Most of these voters had wanted to vote in-person and were distrustful of the system,” he said.

Nelson realized that officials failed to retrieve the box and tabulate the votes after reviewing security camera footage from the county annex building, according to Letcher. McFadden emphasized that while the ballots were in the annex, they remained under lock and key.

To ensure the votes were counted according to state regulations, Peck said Nelson took an additional precautionary measure and asked an election official from Missoula to oversee the process. County officials are working on safeguards that would prevent a repeat of the incident in future elections, according to McFadden.

Once the ballots were recovered, Letcher said the voters he spoke with were understanding of the mistake. McFadden said county officials did not publicize the incident because the county did not deviate from state election guidelines.

Robin Benson, county clerk and recorder, said that while this is the first time local officials have misplaced a ballot box, it is not the first time it has happened in the state.

The Montana Secretary of State’s Office directed requests for comment to county officials.

Nelson resigned from his post on Nov. 9. County officials said he left county employment for personal reasons. His departure had nothing to do with the misplaced box, officials said.

“[Nelson] was not fired, nor asked to resign,” said McFadden. “In my opinion and that of his supervisors, Chris was an outstanding county employee and is to be commended for many years of admirable service. He is missed.”

Peck echoed McFadden, saying that Nelson was a good trooper and that he hated to see him go. The commissioner pointed out that Nelson did a phenomenal job despite assuming his post during trying circumstances.

Nelson did not respond to phone call requests for comment.

The clerk and recorder’s office appointed Nelson to his position at the end of August when Leigh Riggleman, former election administrator, stepped down. County officials gave no reason for Riggleman’s resignation. She left her office after commissioners switched from her proposed all mail-in election, meant to avoid the spread of the coronavirus on Election Day, to a poll election.

Shortly after Nelson’s appointment, commissioners changed course again in favor of a mail-in voting process.

In the following months, Nelson oversaw the planning and execution of the mail-in plan. Adapting to this format, unprecedented for a general election in Lincoln County, required Nelson to organize drop-off locations and the mail-out of ballots to active voters.

He also secured a Ballot on Demand machine for the county. The machine allowed officials to reissue ballots to north county residents without them having to drive to the county courthouse in Libby.

Benson said the county stopped accepting applicants for the election administrator position on Friday. Until a new administrator is hired, she has assumed the responsibilities of the role.