County's election process questioned at commission meeting
Paula Buff, Lincoln County's election administrator, at work on April 30, 2021. (FILE/The Western News)
The Western News | November 18, 2022 7:00 AM
Questioning how elections are conducted has grown dramatically in the last few years and even Lincoln County is not immune from it.
At the Nov. 9 county Commission meeting, District 3 Commissioner Josh Letcher said he wanted more races added to the post election audit in an effort to build confidence in the process.
Letcher cited four examples of human error in county elections between 2016 and 2022.
The purpose of the audit, which is conducted by a hand count, is to ensure the tabulation was correct.
The audit, which will occur at 9 a.m. Friday, Nov. 18, at the county Election Center at 418 Mineral Ave., in Libby, will include a hand count of 234 ballots from Precinct 6, which is the McCormick area located about 15 miles northwest of Troy.
At the Nov. 16 Commission meeting, Letcher, who appeared on video, questioned the process by which audit committee members are selected and that only one race - the one between Ryan Zinke and Monica Tranel for the state’s First District U.S. House of Representatives seat - was being audited.
“With President Trump announcing his intent to run, we want to avoid any ‘super secret squirrel business’ in the next election,” Letcher said. “I don’t distrust our elections, but if we don’t have people’s trust now, it won’t be good. We have the ability to alleviate people’s concerns and we’re only doing the bare minimum.”
Trump has repeatedly claimed that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent and stolen. It’s under that backdrop that Letcher said he wants there to be as much transparency as possible in the process. Incidentally, Trump won Montana by 98,816 votes while losing overall to Pres. Joe Biden. Biden collected more than 81 million votes nationwide while Trump had a little more than 74 million.
Letcher said he had a few people tell him in the last week they’d like to be involved in the audit.
But, county Election Administrator Paula Buff said no one had contacted her to be on the audit committee. She also provided a list from the Montana Secretary of State that showed audit committee members will also be counting results from the Montana Supreme Court race between Ingrid Gustafson and James Brown and the statewide ballot initiative C-48.
“We welcome people to be election judges and be part of the process,” Buff said at Wednesday’s meeting. We run legal ads in the papers, we post notices at the county courthouse and other county buildings and on the county website.”
Then Letcher acknowledged he forgot that he and fellow Commissioners Jerry Bennett and Brent Task approved the 2022 Post Election Audit Committee during the June 1 commission meeting.
Montana law, specifically, Montana Code Annotated 13-17-504, says the county governing body shall appoint at least three individuals to serve on the county audit committee.
According to the approved June 1 commission meeting minutes, Letcher made a motion to approve the recommended appointees, which included BreeAnna Adamson, Kristin Smith, Anita Short, Ann German and William Crews.
Adamson and German were disqualified from being on the audit committee after they worked the 2022 general election.
Jeff Zwang was appointed in Adamson’s place and Dustina Deans was appointed in German’s spot.
Bennett then agreed to join the audit committee recently to assist in the hand count.
But after hearing from some residents of their concerns and that the audit count was not going to be substantial, Bennett elected to with draw from the committee.
County residence Darrel “DC” Orr and Mike France weighed in with their thoughts about the election process.
“What Mr. Letcher brought up is very important,” Orr said. “You guys are gonna be perceived as working behind the scenes.”
Bennett replied, saying, “That’s your opinion, DC.”
France said he has lived in Lincoln County since 1996.
“I want to thank you for all of your hard work,” France said. “Paula, I have no reason to believe you’d be dishonest and I’d assume you’re honest and up front. But I don’t think you’re understanding how this looks to people. You have to be willing to take the criticism and I hope we can work together in the future.”
German, who worked the election at the Memorial Events Center in Libby on Nov. 8, praised the efforts of Buff and her assistant, Amanda Eckart.
“I was there from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and these two gals aren’t getting paid enough,” German said. "There is a great deal of work that goes into this and the election went off without a hitch."
Letcher said he is still not comfortable with how things are now. “I don’t question the tabulator and it could be a good process, but we need to make sure there are sufficient checks and balances and I think we can do more to be transparent,” Letcher said.