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County commissioner wants vote audit expanded

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | November 15, 2022 7:00 AM

A Lincoln County Commissioner wants to see more races added to the post-election audit in an effort to build confidence in the process.

District 3 Commissioner Josh Letcher presented his idea at the Nov. 9 meeting. He also presented a letter dated Nov. 9 which detailed his recollection of what he termed “major human errors” from elections in 2016, 2020 and 2022.

District 1 Commissioner Jerry Bennett said the audit would be on the agenda for the Wednesday, Nov. 16 meeting. The audit is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 18.

County Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson thought that Election Administrator Paula Buff should be present for any discussion about the audit and said if races were going to be added to the audit, more people may be needed to do it. Audits are done by hand count, so the number of them that need to be performed will dictate how many people are needed.

On Wednesday, Nov. 9, Buff, who took over the position not long after the 2020 general election, said she had no comment on Letcher’s motion because she had not seen it.

"I don't think expanding the audit is a bad idea is a bad idea, but the timing is difficult," Benson said.

Benson said Lincoln County's two election officials, Paula Buff and Amanda Eckart, are currently going through provisional ballots, precinct registers and post election audit reports that are required by the state.

Benson said each county in Montana is required to perform an audit to ensure the vote tabulator worked properly.

An audit is done by people who are citizen volunteers or county employees who aren't affiliated with the election.

"We don't ask people what party they belong to, it's a process that is done after each election," Benson said.

Benson said the county is still waiting on the state to provide a list of races it must audit.

"We should be receiving an audit list this week from the Montana Secretary of State," Benson said.

In Letcher’s letter, he wrote that “According to the Clerk and Recorder and the LC Election Administrator the election ballot tabulators are inanimate objects that have no bias. The only possible errors in an election are human caused.”

Letcher also detailed what he called “four major human errors” in three of the past four Lincoln County election cycles.

In 2016, Letcher said a tabulator was not properly programmed for the different arrangements on the ballots from different precincts. He wrote in the letter that, “This oversite mistake could have been the difference in the winner in several local elections. Specifically, District Judge and Clerk of Court.”

Letcher said there were two errors in 2020. One involved a bad fold in ballots was discovered that created a bad reading in the tabulator. Letcher said it resulted in having to hand count several races in the middle of the ballot.

Benson said the 2020 general election was 100% by mail because of COVID and that all of the ballots were folded.

"Ballots are kicked out of the tabulator because they are not readable and that may be for a variety of reasons," Benson said. "Someone may have spilled coffee on it or written on it with a crayon, we've seen it all."

Benson said ballots that are not readable by the tabulator go to a duplication board. The board then determines the voter's intent so the ballot is counted.

"We do want those ballots to be counted," Benson said.

The other incident in 2020 was detailed in a previous The Western News story.

In the story, it was reported that 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.

Then-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.

Then-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. McFadden emphasized that while the ballots were in the annex, they remained under lock and key.

At the time, Letcher 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.

Letcher concluded his letter with the ballot printing mistake that occurred in the June 2022 primary that resulted in county election officials hand counting all ballots for all races.

“As elected officials we must ensure Lincoln County election integrity is above and beyond. As Robin (Benson) has stated many times, ‘we are all human and we all make mistakes.’ But I believe with the proper institutional controls and post-election audits, the Lincoln County Election Department can guarantee fair and accurate elections.”

Letcher wants to see multiple precincts, the contested local race, both Montana Supreme Court races and both statewide ballot issues as well as the race for the U.S. House of Representatives District 1 seat added to the random sample audit.

“We don’t have to blame someone, but make sure mistakes don’t happen again,” Letcher said.

State Sen. Mike Cuffe (R-Eureka) thought increasing the audit and going the extra mile was a good idea.

“I think it’d go a long way to creating confidence because a lot of people have concerns about the process,” Cuffe said.