A new slate of lawmakers are already preparing to take office. But for state and local election officials, the midterm is not yet over — or official.
By Alex Sakariassen MONTANA FREE PRESS
The Missoula County Election Center echoed with the names of western district congressional candidates Thursday. Election workers chanting “Monica,” “Ryan” or “Lamb” leafed through stacks of ballots in their laps, some sporting rubber tips on their index fingers. Others hunched over spreadsheets, logging a hashmark at every call of a name. With each fifth hashmark, another voice would ring out, “tally.”
This is democracy in action, a process conducted well after the polls close to ensure Montana’s electoral results were accurate and fair. It played out in similar fashion across two-thirds of the state’s counties this week, the same as it has for more than a decade.
For the vast majority of Montanans, Election Day is a single point on the calendar. Voters drop their ballots off or cast their votes at the polls, candidates make their last-ditch pitches to the electorate, and journalists scramble to cover it all. Then they all collectively perch on the edge of their chairs waiting for a mix of media feeds and political analysts to, as Center for Election Innovation and Research Executive Director David Becker puts it, “feed our impatience, meet our demand.” Banner races are often resolved within hours or days on the basis of wide margins and victory or concession speeches.
But the results of Nov. 8 aren’t yet official, and for the people running Montana’s elections, Election Day itself was only a crescendo in an ongoing composition. For them, the process started months before the polls opened, and it continues into the holiday season. Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is not expected to certify the results of the 2022 midterm until the end of November.
While this process has become the focus of increased attention and even skepticism over the past two years, Missoula County Deputy Elections Administrator Nathan Coyan said a broad swath of voters aren’t fully aware of the different procedures involved. The post-election process is a complex one involving various steps at the state and local levels. Coyan gestured toward the three tables in his county’s election center Thursday, to the teams of three at each table sorting through hundreds of ballots.
“My favorite part about all of this is every one of these ballots is an individual voter’s ballot,” he said. “I mean, they took the time to fill out this ballot. Now we’re taking the time to make sure that the service that we’re providing to the voters is that the ballot was tabulated correctly.”
Final counts and 10-sided dice
By Nov. 10, most counties in Montana had completed their counts of poll-voted and absentee ballots, with those results reflected on the secretary of state’s website. But the numbers didn’t yet reflect every ballot cast in the Nov. 8 election. Under Montana law, counties can’t begin to count provisional ballots until 3 p.m. the Monday after an election. Provisional ballots are typically cast by voters experiencing individual challenges on Election Day, such as a missing absentee ballot or an inability to present adequate identification at the polls — challenges that have to be resolved before the ballot can be counted.
Last Friday, election workers and observers in Cascade County gathered to prepare those provisional ballots for Monday’s count. They also worked to transfer ballots cast by military personnel onto ballot stock that could be read by the county’s tabulating machines, a duty undertaken by a three-person resolution board and observed by representatives from both political parties. Since all other county offices were observing the Veterans Day holiday, the building was locked, sparking a tense episode with a group of people concerned about the integrity of the process. The tension continued during the count Monday as more people showed up to observe, several wearing camouflage clothing and one watching through binoculars.
As one of the official observers, Cascade County Republican Central Committee Treasurer Fred Fairhurst, told Montana Free Press this week, there was “no indication” that the process was anything less than legitimate. In fact, it was taking place in counties across the state as a matter of course.
On Tuesday, the post-election scene shifted to the Montana Capitol, where the Board of State Canvassers went about the riveting task of rolling 10-sided dice to determine which local precincts would be subject to a post-election audit. Jacobsen characterized the random selection as a “continuation of the quality control measures found in Montana law.”
“The audit is where counties hand-count ballots, the races and precincts chosen today, and compare those results to the previously tabulated results,” Jacobsen said. “I’m proud of the work the state’s election administrators do in completing this very important quality control step.”
The board spent roughly two hours rolling dice, producing a list of precincts that individual counties would subsequently check to ensure that their electronic tabulators accurately recorded the votes cast on local ballots. Montana law calls for 5% of the precincts in each county to be audited, meaning smaller counties such as Custer and Lincoln audit only one precinct, while larger Flathead, Missoula and Yellowstone counties audit three. In Petroleum and Wibaux counties, the audit decision is automatic — each contains only one precinct.
Only 44 of Montana’s 56 counties are subject to the post-election audit in 2022. Two — Cascade and Sanders — are exempt due to potential recounts. Ten others are exempt due to the fact that they conduct their elections by hand-count in the first place: Daniels, Fallon, Garfield, Golden Valley, McCone, Meagher, Powder River, Prairie, Treasure and Wheatland.
The board also selected at random which races the audit would address. As the only federal race on this year’s ticket, the races for Montana’s two U.S. House seats landed at the top of the list by default. Of the two state Supreme Court races on the ballot, a dice roll established that the high-profile race between incumbent Justice Ingrid Gustafson and challenger James Brown would be included in the audit. And of the two ballot initiatives before 2022 voters, the bipartisan C-48 was randomly chosen.
Audit in action
Tuesday’s action in Helena is precisely what led to the Thursday chants of candidate names in Missoula. The dice determined that precincts Hellgate 97, Lowell 94 and St. Joe 100 East would be the focus of this fall’s audit in Missoula County. As the teams of three responsible for the work arrived, a trio of boxes awaited on tables against the side wall, each centered beneath a sign displaying the corresponding precinct. County election administrator Bradley Seaman explained that his staff had spent the previous day double- and triple-checking the total number of ballots in each box to make sure they were accounted for and ready for the audit to begin.
After a brief run-through of the process from Coyan and Seaman, the teams got to work. They started by sorting ballots into stacks depending on how votes were cast in the congressional race, then proceeded to count each stack out loud. Every vote for a particular candidate was marked separately by two team members on individual spreadsheets. After entering 20 hashmarks, the workers tallying the votes switched to a different color pen — black or red — and switched again after 20 more hashmarks. That, Seaman said, is a step his office implemented purely to slow the counting down.
“It’s not a race, there’s no prize for finishing first,” he said. “It’s all about accuracy.”
Teams repeated the process for the next candidate-specific stack, and the next, before totaling the tallies on both spreadsheets and comparing them against each other and the report generated by the county’s tabulators for that precinct. Once a team finished with the congressional race, they moved on to tally the Supreme Court votes, then the votes for or against C-48.
For the team tasked with auditing St. Joe 100 East, the work included a fourth round of counting: an audit of the results in state Senate District 50. Legislative districts aren’t always subject to the post-election audit in Montana, but when a precinct randomly selected by the Board of State Canvassers includes one or more contested legislative races, one of them gets added to the pile as well. This year, audits in 27 counties included a legislative race.
In addition to the boxes, which contained hundreds of absentee ballots, Missoula’s post-election audit included a separate box of provisional ballots counted Monday, along with three thin manila envelopes arrayed on a table against the far wall. Those, Coyan said, contained all the poll-voted ballots cast in each precinct.
“By verifying that that physical, indelible record from the paper ballot matches the totals that came out of the machine, we can ensure we got every person’s ballot counted the way it was marked and the way that voter wanted it,” Coyan added, summing up the day’s core intent. “This is an important part of it. And honestly, it’d be good if more people could see what happens.”
The window for counties to complete their post-election audit duties closes Nov. 21. But that’s still not the end of the process. Once the audit is complete, county officials move on to their post-election canvass. As Coyan describes it, the canvas is “more expansive,” tracking every ballot on its path through the election and ensuring that the total received by a county matches the number it counted. In other words, where the audit serves as a check on the accuracy of the equipment tabulating the votes, the canvass verifies that all the ballots cast were received and recorded in the county’s results.
This step in the process is typically overseen by county commissioners, though substitutes may be selected to fill in for a commissioner who happens to be on the ballot. For example, incumbent Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier was up for re-election on Nov. 8. According to Seaman, his spot on the canvass board will be filled by retiring Clerk of District Court Shirley Faust.
Per Montana law, once the canvass is complete, county election administrators send those official results to the secretary of state via certified mail. As an added check, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices also provides the secretary with notification that elected candidates have complied with the necessary filing requirements. Once all those steps have concluded, the Board of State Canvassers convenes to declare the election’s victors, enabling the secretary of state to issue certificates of election to those candidates.
According to Jacobsen’s office, that board meeting is currently slated for Nov. 29, at which point Montanans can anticipate being able to accurately refer to the 2022 general election as a done deal.