On Thursday, the Missoula County Electoral Center echoed the names of the Western District’s congressional candidates. Election workers chanting “Monica,” “Ryan,” or “Lamb” thumbed through stacks of ballots on their laps, some sporting rubber tips on their index fingers. Others hunched over spreadsheets, logging a hashmark with each invocation of a name. With every fifth hashmark, another voice rang out, “tally”.

This is democracy in action, a process conducted well after the polls closed to ensure that Montana’s election results were accurate and fair. This week it was similarly played out in two-thirds of the state’s counties, the same it has done for more than a decade.

For the vast majority of Montanans, Election Day is a single point on the calendar. Voters drop their ballots or cast their votes at the polls, candidates make their latest proposals to the electorate, and journalists rush to cover it all. Then they all perch collectively 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, satisfy our demand.” . Banner races often resolve themselves within hours or days based on large margins and win-or-concession talks.

But the Nov. 8 results aren’t official yet, and for the folks running the Montana election, Election Day itself was just a crescendo in an ongoing settlement. For them, the process began months before the polls opened and continues into the holiday season. Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is not expected to certify the 2022 midterm results until the end of November.

While this process has come under increased scrutiny and even skepticism over the past two years, Missoula County Deputy Elections Administrator Nathan Coyan said a large swath of voters are not fully aware of the different procedures involved. The post-election process is complex and involves many stages at the state and local level. Coyan pointed to the three tables in his county’s polling center on Thursday, toward the three-person teams at each table selecting hundreds of ballots.

“My favorite part about all of this is that each of these votes is an individual voter’s vote,” he said. “I mean, they took the time to fill out this form. We are now taking the time to make sure the service we are providing to voters is that the vote was tabulated correctly.”

FINAL COUNTS AND 10-SIDED DICE

By November 10, most of Montana’s counties had completed their ballot and absentee counts, with those results reflected on the secretary of state’s website. But the numbers still did not reflect all the votes cast in the Nov. 8 election. Under Montana law, counties cannot begin counting provisional ballots until 3:00 p.m. on the Monday following the election. Provisional ballots are usually cast by voters who face individual challenges on Election Day, such as a missing absentee ballot or an inability to present proper identification at the polls – challenges that must be resolved before the ballot can be counted.

On Friday, poll workers and observers in Cascade County met to prepare tentative ballots for Monday’s count. They also worked to transfer ballots cast by military personnel onto ballots that could be read by county tabulators, a task performed by a three-person resolution board and observed by representatives of both political parties. Since all other county offices were observing the Veterans Day holiday, the building was closed, sparking a tense episode with a group of people concerned about the integrity of the process. Tension continued during the count on Monday as more people showed up to observe, many wearing camouflage clothing and one looking through binoculars.

As one of the official observers, Fred Fairhurst, treasurer of the Cascade County Republican Central Committee, told the Montana Free Press this week, there was “no indication” that the trial was anything less than legitimate. In fact, it was taking place in counties across the state as a matter of course.

The post-election scene moved to the Montana Capitol on Tuesday, where the Board of State Canvassers performed the fascinating task of rolling 10-sided dice to determine which local districts would be subject to a post-election audit. Jacobsen defined random selection as a “continuation of the quality control measures found in Montana law.”

“Audit is where counties manually count ballots, races and districts picked today and compare those results to previously tabulated results,” Jacobsen said. “I am proud of the work the state election administrators have done in completing this very important quality control phase.”

The council spent about two hours rolling the dice, producing a list of wards that individual counties would later check to make sure their electronic tabulators accurately recorded the votes cast on local ballots. Montana law requires 5 percent of each county’s districts to be controlled, meaning that smaller counties such as Custer and Lincoln control only one district, while the larger counties of Flathead, Missoula and Yellowstone control three. In Petroleum and Wibaux counties, the audit decision is automatic: each contains only one district.

Only 44 of Montana’s 56 counties are subject to post-election audit in 2022. Two – Cascade and Sanders – are exempt due to potential recounts. Ten others are exempt because they conduct their elections by hand counting in the first place: Daniels, Fallon, Garfield, Golden Valley, McCone, Meagher, Powder River, Prairie, Treasure, and Wheatland.

The board also randomly selected which tenders the audit would address. As the only federal race on this year’s ticket, races for Montana’s two U.S. House seats topped the list by default. Of the two state Supreme Court races on the ballot, a roll of the dice determined that the high-profile contest 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 chosen at random.

AUDITS IN ACTION

Tuesday’s action in Helena is precisely what led to Thursday’s chorus of candidate names in Missoula. The dice determined that the districts of 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 job supervisors arrived, a trio of boxes waited on tables against the side wall, each centered under a sign pointing to the corresponding enclosure. County Election Administrator Bradley Seaman said 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 review of the process by Coyan and Seaman, the teams got to work. They began by sorting ballots into piles depending on how votes were cast in the race for Congress, then proceeded to count each pile aloud. Each vote for a particular candidate was marked up separately by two team members on individual spreadsheets. After entering 20 hashmarks, the workers counting votes switched to a different colored pen, black or red, and switched again after another 20 hashmarks. This, Seaman said, is a step his office has implemented solely to slow the countdown.

“It’s not a race, there’s no prize for finishing first,” he said. “It’s all about accuracy.”

The teams repeated the process for the next candidate-specific stack and the next, before summing the counts on both spreadsheets and comparing them to the report generated by the county tabulators for that district. Once a team finished the race for Congress, it moved on to counting the Supreme Court votes, then the votes for or against C-48.

For the St. Joe 100 East audit team, the work included a fourth round of counting: an outcomes audit in State Senate District 50. Legislative districts aren’t always subject to post-election audit in Montana, but when a district selected at random by the Board of State Canvassers includes one or more contested legislative races, one of them is added to the pile as well. This year, audits in 27 counties included a legislative run.

In addition to the boxes, which contained hundreds of absentee ballots, the Missoula post-election audit included a separate box of provisional ballots counted on Monday, along with three thin yellow paper envelopes laid out on a table against the back wall. Those, Coyan said, contained all of the ballots cast in every district.

“By verifying that the physical and indelible record of the paper ballot matches the totals that came out of the machine, we can make sure we’re counting each person’s ballot the way it was marked and the way the voter wanted it,” he added. Coyan, summing up the main focus of the day. “This is an important part. And honestly, it would be nice if more people could see what’s going on.

NEXT STEPS

The window for counties to complete their post-election audit duties closes on November 21. But that’s not the end of the process yet. Once the audit is complete, county officials move on to post-election campaigning. As Coyan describes it, the canvas is “more expansive,” tracking each ballot on its way through the election and ensuring that the total a county received matches the number it counted. In other words, where the audit is to verify the accuracy of the vote-recording equipment, the viewer verifies that all votes cast have been received and recorded in the county results.

This phase of the process is usually overseen by county commissioners, although alternates may be selected to replace a commissioner who is on the ballot. For example, incumbent Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier was up for re-election on November 8. According to Seaman, his place on the board will be filled by retired district court clerk Shirley Faust.

Under Montana law, after campaigning is complete, county election administrators send the official results to the secretary of state by certified mail. As an additional 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 of these steps are concluded, the Board of State Canvassers meets to declare the winners of the election, allowing the secretary of state to issue election certificates to those candidates.

According to Jacobsen’s office, that board meeting is currently scheduled for Nov. 29, at which point Montanans can anticipate they can accurately reference the 2022 general election as a done deal.

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