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County gets debriefing report from election administrator

by SCOTT SHINDLEDECKER
The Western News | December 5, 2023 7:00 AM

The Lincoln County Commissioners held a debriefing session last Wednesday about the 2023 election.

District 1 Commissioner Brent Teske said the commissioners wanted to hold the session after he said he received quite a few questions from voters about ballot problems and other issues.

“There are some misconceptions by the voters and us and we want to get things straight for the next election,” Teske said.

Candidates have from Jan. 11 through March 11, 2024, to file for office with the Montana Secretary of State. The primary election is June 4 and the general election is Nov. 5. 

Teske went over a number of questions he received from a community member as well as some he had after going over his ballot with county Clerk and Recorder Corinna Brown. When asked who the sender of the email was, he said he thought he should ask the person before identifying her. 

Teske said one issue was on the return ballot section.

“We failed to mention people could put their ballots in return boxes at the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and the Troy Dispatch office,” Teske said.

Election Administrator Melanie Howell said, “It’s on our radar.”

Another was that the ballots for the marijuana tax didn’t say, “Special Election.”

Howell said it was a, “miscommunication between myself and the Secretary of State office.”

Howell also acknowledged that she didn’t know that all the ballots weren’t stamped, “Official Ballot.”

The person who emailed Teske asked why there was no write-in line on the ballot.

“Is there typically a space if no one signs up to be a write-in candidate by a certain date?” Teske said. 

District 3 Commissioner Josh Letcher said not having the space helps get rid of people writing in “Mickey Mouse” or other fictional characters.

According to information on the Montana Secretary of State website, write-in candidates for federal, state-wide, state-district or legislative races must submit a declaration of intent to the county election administrator office by 5:00 p.m. and no later than 55 days prior to the election.

For local government races, the declaration of intent must be submitted to the county election administrator office by 5:00 p.m. and no later than 65 days prior to the election.

Letcher remarked that several couples didn’t receive ballots in the mail.

“I know some of them were due to wrong addresses or they hadn’t updated their registration,” he said.

Howell also explained that the county Election Office is not tied to the U.S. Postal Service when it comes to change of address.

“People may inform the post office of a new address, but if we don’t find out from the person, we won’t know it. We are not connected to the Post Office for address changes. And ballots are not forwarded to a person’s new address. If a ballot can not be delivered to the listed address, it will be returned to the Election Department.”

In terms of election judges, Howell said they had all been sworn in and she was happy with their enthusiasm.

Teske said someone told them it would be nice if election judges could work just one-half day.

“We encourage judges to work the full shift for continuity and security

Teske said county staff had been used to assist in elections quite extensively in the past, but he wasn’t sure that was a good idea.

“I’m obligated to reach out to people in the various communities for help,” Howell said. “To stuff envelopes, we needed staff to get it done.”

It was mentioned that there wasn’t a sign at the Troy polling place.

“All the polling places didn’t have signs displayed and we actually found them after the election,” Howell said.

She said she spoke to several election workers for their thoughts.

“We learned some of what we did wrong, where we can improve and we saw some confusion among voters,” Howell said. “We had some voters come to the polling places to vote on the school levy (in Eureka), but that was a mail-in ballot only.

“We had to order new provisional ballots, but kudos to the polling place managers at all the sites for their efforts,” Howell said. “We’ll also be seeking more election judges for 2024.”

Teske said, “It was a goofy election with a lot of items on the ballot, but I think you guys did a good job overall.”

Howell thanked Letcher and Brown for their assistance.

“We appreciate all the help. For our first election, it was quite a bit, but overall I think it went well,” Howell said.

The recently concluded general election got off to rocky start after incorrect absentee ballots were printed and mailed to Eureka voters for the town council election.

Howell said the mistake happened within the election department during the proofing process and that the printer was not responsible.

Ballot mistakes, uncounted ballots and a succession of new election administrators have plagued the county Election Department and caused some to question the legitimacy of the process.

Since 2016, county elections have seen mistakes that Letcher previously said were, “major human errors.” In 2016, a tabulator was not properly programmed for different arrangements on ballots from different precincts.

In 2020, Letcher reported a bad fold in ballots that created a bad reading in the tabulator machine. According to reporting in The Western News, the second incident in 2020 included a ballot box that was left temporarily unaccounted for in the North Lincoln County Annex in Eureka for three days after the November election. County officials recovered the ballots and tabulated them within the timeframe allowed by the state and were never at risk of being tampered with.

The last one occurred in June 2022 when a ballot printing mistake resulted in county election officials hand counting all ballots for all races.

At a Nov. 1 county Commissioner meeting, D.C. Orr, a candidate for Libby City Council, said he was in the county Annex building, where the Election Department is located, earlier that day when he saw a man carrying an open-top tote container with ballots. Orr said he questioned Howell if that was an appropriate way to transport ballots. According to Orr, Howell said the container held returns, but then said it also included ballots. Brown said she walked with Noah while he carried the tote.

Commissioner Brent Teske said the totes were how the ballots come from the post office. Orr wanted Teske to declare the election was secure. Teske said he’d look into it. When Orr pressed further about the transport of ballots, Teske said he’d have to check with the Montana Secretary of State.

Brown later said that the incident led staff to change how ballots are transported from the post office to the election administrator’s office. She said that ballots were transported in a locked container.

Howell is the fourth person to hold the Election Administrator title since 2020. Paula Buff was on the job from 2021 to 2023. Before her, Chris Nelson served from August 2020 to November 2020. He resigned following the general election that year. Nelson replaced long-time election administrator Leigh Riggleman, who resigned in 2020 while county commissioners wrangled over having an all mail-in election, meant to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, or a traditional poll election.

Buff resigned along with her assistant Amanda Eckart, and Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson at the end of March.

In her letter of resignation, Benson wrote that, “There is zero respect or even common courtesy from commissioners to county election employees or myself. My job has never been political, both on the Clerk and Recorder side and especially elections. Now, politics is being shoved down my throat and I refuse to comply with someone else’s world view.”