The Missoula County Sheriff's Office likely will conclude in "at least a week" the initial part of its investigation into allegations of fraud during May's countywide schools election, according to a department official.

Capt. Rich Maricelli met Friday with Patty Lovaas, a Missoula accountant alleging the most recent schools election was rigged. Lovaas is asking the Missoula County Elections Office to void the outcome and redo the vote.

Maricelli said if adequate explanations clear up the discrepancies Lovaas found, the investigation may conclude. If the computer discrepancies cannot be cleared up, the county may bring in a forensics expert.

This case marks the first time in at least a couple of decades that the sheriff's office has pursued charges of fraud in local elections.

But it's not the first time Lovaas has butted heads with government officials.

In a Lewis and Clark County District Court order, a judge described one of Lovaas' court filings as "inaccurate, intemperate and threatening." He ordered her on Aug. 8 to halt her repeated allegations against Gov. Brian Schweitzer or face sanctions as a "vexatious and harassing" plaintiff.

Lovaas' review of Missoula County's most recent schools election, though, does appear to have uncovered an error in the way the state Montana Votes database runs reports for at least one discrete segment of information.

The Missoula County Elections Office last week reported the flaw to the Montana Secretary of State office, which oversees the database.

Lovaas, a Republican politician, alleges the discrepancies are evidence of high-tech tampering with the vote and an assault on elections integrity. She said she would not be satisfied with an explanation from the elections administrator and disagrees with any suggestion that her own analysis could fall short.

"I could not be wrong. I've had enough experience to know that I cannot be wrong. That's what I do," said Lovaas, a tax accountant who works with numbers in detail.

*****

On Friday, elections administrator Vickie Zeier demonstrated the way the software program that runs the Montana Votes database operates. The program ran some sets of queries as expected.

Zeier also displayed the program botching a report. At the same time, she showed that the voter information in the core database remained intact and unaltered. The database is the source of the logs the Elections Office keeps to ensure each eligible voter is issued a proper ballot.

Zeier said she has never shied away from people who question the elections process, and she encourages those who have concerns to contact her office and learn about the process.

"I think it's really important people understand there's checks and balances," Zeier said.

If the Elections Office is correct, the May schools election went off mostly without a hitch; a programming error in Montana Votes may be responsible for the triplicate listings in the spreadsheet Lovaas is using as evidence of tampering.

If Lovaas' allegations are correct, multiple elections systems were compromised in a fraudulent attack meant to ensure passage of Missoula school levies.

*****

Lovaas said she was asked to look into elections outcomes after some people didn't get a ballot on time or received multiple ballots. She requested the voter database from the Elections Office and summary reports of outcomes.

The first thing that looked odd to her was the way the votes in favor of the Missoula levies spiked at the end of the evening.

She said that anomaly isn't necessarily problematic, but it prompted her to look further. Upon review, Lovaas questioned why Zeier reported before 10 p.m. May 3 that the levies had passed when interim reports showed the races still neck and neck.

As she sorted information from the database in different ways, she came across a list that showed single individual's ballots "processed/accepted" three times, and in three separate precincts, ones she named "wild card" precincts.

Lovaas said only a forensics expert can determine for certain the way the information was manipulated. But she speculates that the three separate precinct numbers, 18, 20 and 30, each link to one of the levy requests.

She believes a hacker programmed the ballot scanner or tabulator to distribute votes as necessary to pass Missoula levies. If at the end of the evening, the Missoula high school levy came up short, Lovaas theorizes the system was programmed to push some of those "wild card" votes to swing the election.

Yet another piece of evidence she points to is the canvass. Minus one missing ballot, the canvass showed the numbers in the database, the ballot scanner, and a vote tabulator all added up.

"According to the machines, they all balanced," Lovaas said. "But that didn't include these other (‘wild card') people."

*****

Zeier also has explanations for the discrepancies Lovaas has noted for the high school results.

Three machines scan and count votes, and when Zeier releases early results, she doesn't distribute separate counts from each machine. Rather, discs from each machine go into a tabulator, which calculates a total. And the totals showed the levies passing.

She demonstrated the way the Montana Votes database properly runs reports, and then the way it errs. The database sorts people by the type of ballots they receive. The ballots vary in Missoula County because people can be voting on a combination of issues.

In theory, some people who vote on the Missoula high school levy also may vote on, say, a rural fire district; others who vote on the same high school levy may not live in that same fire district.

When Zeier segregated three legislative districts in one report, the computer program listed each voter from those districts just once. Then, she asked the computer to pull the voters for three separate elementary school districts receiving the same kind of ballot, the Missoula high school one.

The program did, but it fritzed out with these voters who live in three differently numbered school districts and received the same ballot. In those cases, it listed each voter three times, in all three elementary districts, and it "processed/ accepted" the same ballot three times, according to the spreadsheet.

The problem with that report is the program is not separating each school district with the same kind of ballot, according to the Elections Office. Zeier said it's not with the source database, which she showed didn't manipulate information about voters in those school districts.

The school district numbers, of course, are 18, 20 and 30, the same ones Lovaas found problematic. Zeier said one key piece is the ballot numbers linked to each voter are identical. In other words, while the program inexplicably created a report that lists some people three times, she said it didn't issue three ballots to those voters.

The Elections Office pulls reports from Montana Votes, the online database, to determine how many ballots it has received of each type. It verifies the same number of ballots went into the scanners, which are not online or connected to the database. And it ensures a third machine kept the same count; that machine tallies votes from discs taken from the scanners and also is not electronically linked to the other systems or online.

County communications and project manager Anne Hughes said the Elections Office welcomes productive conversations about elections. Asking questions is part of participating in a democracy, and Hughes said listening to answers and learning about elections safeguards also is worthwhile.

"The elections process is highly, highly detailed - to avoid fraud," Hughes said.

*****

Lovaas had a meeting set up Monday with the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, but commissioners postponed it because of the ongoing investigation. The board plans to reschedule the appointment once the sheriff's office has issued findings.

Capt. Maricelli, who is investigating the matter, said he wished Lovaas and elections officials had sat down together and discussed Lovaas' complaints before his office was called to the case; had they done so, Maricelli said an investigation may not have been necessary.

The programming error is one secretary of state spokeswoman Terri Knapp said the department will address as part of its regular database maintenance, although she did not know when.

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

 

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