After a year of unsuccessful requests, election critics in the Montana Legislature will get a special committee focused on election security.
By Alex Sakariassen MONTANA FREE PRESS
During the upcoming legislative session, Montana lawmakers will launch a six-person select committee dedicated to discussing election integrity.
Montana Free Press confirmed the committee’s formation Wednesday with Senate majority leadership. Responding to emailed questions, spokesperson Kyle Schmauch wrote that the joint committee will include two Republican lawmakers from the House and two from the Senate, along with one Democrat from each chamber. The committee will not have the ability to pass bills to the floor of either chamber, but will have to advance any policy proposals through standing committees in the House or Senate.
“We are being responsive to our constituents who have said they want us to take a closer look at Montana’s election laws and processes,” Senate President Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton, said in a written statement. “This committee will be a fact-finding and idea proposing entity. It will supplement and will be in addition to our usual legislative committees and lawmaking procedures, not a replacement of any of the Legislature’s normal processes.”
Recently elected House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, was not immediately available for comment.
According to Schmauch, the select committee will be chaired by Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Columbia Falls. The other three Republicans appointed to the committee are Sen. Theresa Manzella of Stevensville, Rep. Jerry Schillinger of Circle, and Rep. Bob Phalen of Glendive. Senate Minority Leader Pat Flowers, D-Belgrade, informed MTFP Wednesday that Sen. Ryan Lynch, D-Butte, will represent his caucus on the committee. House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said her caucus had not yet settled on its representative.
A small group of Republican lawmakers spearheaded multiple efforts during the legislative interim to call a special session to establish just such a committee. While their efforts failed to generate support from a majority of state legislators, they did hold at least one meeting last winter as a self-appointed “ad hoc election integrity committee.” The meeting, which was not legislatively sponsored, featured several speakers who promoted baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was subject to widespread and coordinated voter fraud.
Manzella, Schillinger and Phalen were among the presiding members of the ad hoc committee. All three also traveled to South Dakota in fall 2021 for an election integrity “symposium” hosted by MyPillow founder and prominent 2020 election denier Mike Lindell. In the months before and since, those lawmakers have been central to a statewide movement among certain conservatives actively questioning the security of Montana’s election procedures.
Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen has not directly addressed any specific allegations regarding election security in Montana, and has declined requests from MTFP for interviews on election integrity issues over the past year. However, she has maintained in public statements that Montana “already sets the standard” for free and fair elections nationally. She also requested the passage of several new election administration laws last session, and is currently appealing to the Montana Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality of those laws.
One of the group’s stipulations in prior requests for a formal election integrity committee was that such a body be granted subpoena powers. Asked whether the committee in the 2023 session would have such powers, Schmauch wrote that he expected the committee to rely on existing document-gathering authority, which does not include subpoena power.
It remains unclear exactly what specific issues the select committee intends to focus on. The phrase “election integrity” is not defined in Montana law, and Schmauch said the scope of the committee’s work could be broad enough to include examination of state laws related to election administration. Glimm told MTFP Thursday that the committee’s work will focus on how lawmakers can improve election security in the state.
“There are lots of Montanans with questions about our election integrity,” Glimm said. “So, we will be looking into that issue and seeing what we can do to make them more secure. It’s the Legislature’s job to ensure that our elections are done right and that will be the goal of the special select committee.”
Asked for comment Wednesday, Abbott said lawmakers have heard “quite a bit” about the potential formation of such a committee. She added that in selecting a member to represent House Democrats, her caucus will “look for someone with expertise who will add value to this discussion.” However, Abbott expressed skepticism about the need for a select committee dedicated to election integrity.
“Generally, in Montana, our elections are run by skilled, competent local officials,” Abbott said. “They’ve been proven to be fair, secure and efficient over and over again, and this is definitely something that I think is being driven by interests outside Montana. We’d like to see the Montana GOP focus on issues that Montanans are concerned about — child care, affordable housing, property tax relief.”
Flowers seconded that position Wednesday, telling MTFP Montana elections are “already open, fair, accurate and well-run.”
“Frankly, I think accusations to the contrary are dangerous, and in many ways only serve to provide excuses for limiting Montanans’ rightful opportunity to vote,” Flowers said. “For us, that’s unacceptable because free and fair elections are really the foundation for our democracy. Putting precious legislative time into a problem that is not real is not time well spent, to say the least.”
That said, Flowers continued, his caucus plans to participate in the committee “for sure,” and will continue to make its opinions about “fabricated issues” known.