The Missoula County Sheriff's Office is investigating an allegation of fraud in the most recent schools election.

"We're looking into it," Capt. Rich Maricelli said Tuesday. "If and when there would be some merit to it and something tangible, then we would give a statement at that time."

The allegations come from a Missoula accountant who has sued the state and been described as a "vexatious litigant." Patty Lovaas said she reviewed data from the county Elections Office and found numerous discrepancies and "erroneous votes." She is asking the county to void the May 3 election.

"This was a highly sophisticated criminal act to intentionally defraud the electorate of Missoula County," wrote Lovaas in an Aug. 8 letter to county officials and the secretary of state.

The Missoula Board of County Commissioners meets 4 p.m. Monday with Lovaas to review the allegations. County officials, though, voiced skepticism at the accusations, and elections administrator Vickie Zeier said vote canvasses showed the election was fair.

"We show no indication that there were any extra ballots counted anywhere, and until I see a report, I stand by our results," Zeier said.

She said she has never been asked to invalidate an election, and Maricelli said it's the first time in his 22 years with the sheriff's office the department is looking into possible election fraud.

***

The May 3 election covered numerous school levy requests and trustee races across the county. Missoula supported four Missoula County Public Schools levies totaling nearly $7 million, but most outlying district levies failed.

Lovaas, a Republican politician, said several voters who didn't receive their mail ballots when they should have asked her to review the election. Some people received duplicate ballots.

The tax accountant originally was looking for the effects of those mistakes. Instead, Lovaas said she came across data that was "very questionable statistically" and raised a red flag.

In short, the vote on the Missoula high school general fund levy had been close in two reports on the evening of May 3, Lovaas said. Then, in a May 4 report at 1:34 a.m., the vote took a big upswing in favor of the levy.

Although not necessarily problematic, the anomaly led Lovaas to take a close look at computer reports of the election tallies. A spreadsheet appears to show single ballots being processed three different times - and in three "wild card" precincts that she said don't exist.

"This is high-tech computer manipulation," Lovaas said.

She counted more than 3,600 such "erroneously listed voters" whose votes were counted three times in three make-believe precincts. She believes someone used ballots from valid voters to orchestrate some elections outcomes: The culprit or culprits used real ballots, overrode the legitimate votes cast, plugged in the desired outcome, and linked those votes to three fake precincts.

Lovaas said either poll or mail-in elections can be altered because of a lack of computer security in elections software. She doesn't know which election outcomes in the county might have been different, but she hopes the sheriff's office will be able to determine the source of the discrepancies she sees.

She also said tracking down an offender will take "pretty technologically literate people."

"We have filed a spoliation letter that freezes up all the computers, all the data, so that we can determine the effects and the source," Lovaas said of the alleged federal offense.

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Commissioner Bill Carey said the county is holding the meeting with Lovaas to see her information and learn from where her allegations stem. He said Zeier has tried to "set her straight" and others in the county have tried to reason with Lovaas, but to no avail.

"She's just determined that something is really wrong, and (she's) pressing forward," Carey said. "She has a history of, how would you call it, vexatious litigation."

On the other hand, Carey said Zeier is "one of the best elections officers in the state, bar none."

"Hopefully, most people will understand the facts at the end of the day and look at it accordingly," Carey said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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