At a meeting that drew a roomful of concerned citizens last Friday, the Ravalli County Commissioners agreed to send a letter to the Montana Secretary of State requesting that Ravalli County be given the authority to do post-election audits of local elections.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows said that after hearing concerns expressed by several people regarding the election results and the accuracy of election voting machines, he began looking into the law. He said that according to County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg, who also serves as the official Election Administrator, the current process is that ballots go into the counting machine and preliminary numbers are produced. The ballots are then sealed, and an audit is conducted under the authority of the Secretary of State. It is a process of rolling dice to randomly select one federal race, one statewide race, one legislative race and one initiative, if there should be one on the ballot.
Burrows said that he was surprised to learn that there was no audit of any local races being conducted. One option suggested by Plettenberg was to have the county do an audit of local elections at the same time. He said after finally responding to his question about a local audit, the Secretary of State’s office said that it doesn’t seem to comply with election statutes.
Deputy County Attorney Clay Leland said that the power to conduct election audits is given by statute to the Secretary of State and Plettenberg in her capacity as Election Administrator. He said that the County does not appear to have any explicit authority to conduct its own election audit. He said the county is a general powers county and does not have any authority that is not explicitly granted or implied by a legal statute. While there might be some chance that power for the county to conduct a local audit is implied in the law, and the state, through a rule change, could allow it, the most direct and possibly quickest route would be through the legislature to seek a change in the law.
Burrows also noted that the current contract with ES&S to run the election machines which was executed in 2015 prohibits the county from knowing the source code of the software being used to count the votes. He said there is public concern over the fact that the county has no control over the machines or the certification of the numbers.
Plettenberg said that the county had been working with ES&S since the 1980’s. She said that every election since 2008 has been audited due to these kinds of fears.
“I have faith in these machines,” said Plettenberg. She said the county has used these machines for a long time and she is not afraid of any audit. She said the machines are pre-tested on June 1, before the election, and the public is invited to attend. She said the state rolls the dice on June 14, and the post-election audit is conducted on the 16th. She said the public can attend or watch it online on Granicus.
Plettenberg also stated that she considered that doing a hand count of ballots could potentially involve a lot of human error. She said people get tired and in counties over 10,000 people, it gets overwhelming.
“The machines have proven to be accurate,” said Plettenberg. “We have proven it through pre-testing and in post-election audits.”
Several members of the public disagreed with her on that issue and insisted that the county should quit using the machines and go back to hand counting.
Terri Lackey said, “Our concern is about this contract restricting you.” She said the machines were controlled by wi-fi and that these days, “technology is so sharp that that they can do anything.”
Plettenberg said that she had done her own testing on the issue and found that the machines could not be reached by wi-fi.
Several people also claimed that proof of the machine’s vulnerability was how the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Janet Pruitt said, “I’m one of those people who doesn’t trust computers. After 2020 I’ll never trust machines again.”
Another repeated refrain was that the county’s contract with the company declares that the source code of the software used to do the counting is kept a proprietary secret by the company. They argued that the county could not really certify the election results without knowing the source code and the algorithm being used to do the counting.
Both Plettenberg and Burrows disagreed. They said that knowing the source code was not necessary to verify the machines because that is done through an audit in which actual ballots are counted to verify the machine results. Plettenberg said that she does all the software programming for the election in-house and is responsible for the security of the machines and the ballots.
Linda Schmidt, chair of the Ravalli County Democratic Central Committee, said Plettenberg was the finest election official in the state.
“I’m frankly ashamed of the people in this county who demonstrate such disrespect for what she has done for them and everybody else,” said Schmidt. She said if anyone were to blame the elections it would be Democrats since they have lost more here than they have ever gained. She said she had observed the process and listened to officials and understands them. She said she trusted her government officials and most members of the public.
“But I worry about some of you,” said Schmidt. “You have been spun up into a fever of paranoia and it is not right. It’s a failure of leadership that this kind of anxiety could be exploited. It’s just wrong. Government is serious business. It can be boring, plodding, not as fast as we would like, but it is conducted by people we have given the authority to. We give them the power. Politics is a different matter. There is more theater in politics than there should be. I think much of this exercise is political theater. It is not serious business. I’m embarrassed about it. Democrats have no problem with the voting process in Ravalli County.”
Representative David Bedey (R-HD86) said that he was confident that the integrity of the election system was unquestionable.
“But there is no reason we can’t make it better,” said Bedey. He said they were currently looking at legislation over the electoral process and considering post-election audits and how it might be augmented.
“I like the idea of broadening the audit to include local races,” said Bedey. “I don’t believe in the loaded dice theory about collusion,” said Bedey. He said he did believe that there were not enough precincts being audited sufficient to make the statistics that meaningful.
According to Bedey, the issue about the source code was that meaningful. He called the contract “boiler plate” language for intellectual property rights. He said he would support changing the contract language so that the state could be held more accountable for the certification process. He said penalties for fraudulent voting might also be worth considering. He said that the legislature was probably the best venue for solving all these problems.
Senator Theresa Manzella (R-SD44) said that after six months of study on her part, she had “identified a large gaping hole in the statutes protecting the electoral process.” She said she was supporting the idea of a special committee to look into the issue. “We are hoping to investigate the whole process and fix it,” she said.
Driving her concerns, she said, was when a friend told her that she could start her car in Montana while on vacation out of state. She said the technology on thermostats made it possible for the Governor of California to turn down people’s air conditioners. She read from a federal report published in 2020 that identified eight vulnerabilities in the electoral voting process. She referred to a Montana study that also identified a wide scope of vulnerabilities concluding that the Secretary of State did not have the information needed to adequately secure the election process.
“I hope this is enough to convince you we have insecurities in our election process,” said Manzella. “We are in an emergency situation.” She said the Secretary of State told her that the post-election audit law needs to be changed.
Commissioner Burrows said that he was cautious about the “abuse of emergency powers, especially after our COVID experience.”
“People are getting tired of feeling their vote is not being counted,” said Manzella.
The commissioners voted unanimously to send a letter to the Secretary of State and copies to the Attorney General and the Governor requesting that Ravalli County be given the authority to do post-election audits of local elections.