Ballots

Elections Aide Peggy Chilcote demonstrates how one of the ballot opening machines works as Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors looks on at the Missoula County Fairground's voting offices in October 2016. The Missoula County Elections office showed visitors around the facility to calm fears around voter fraud and rigged elections.

At least one important election matter won’t appear on the ballots being mailed out to Missoula voters on Wednesday, but that doesn’t mean Missoulians won’t get a say.

Missoula County commissioners are weighing whether to appoint a new elections administrator — or to return to the previous system of asking voters to elect an elections administrator every few years.

Both methods come with advantages and potential pitfalls. On the balance, however, the current setup seems to be working well and has the endorsement of those with the most insight into the position — both the former and current head of elections in Missoula County.

Indeed, the current system was instituted to address a concern brought forward by Chief Administrative Officer Vickie Zeier, who acted as the county’s clerk and recorder, an elected position, for more than 20 years before she was named to her current post.

Zeier told the Board of County Commissioners this month that spending her working hours preparing for an election, and then her personal time campaigning for votes in that same election, was “extremely awkward.” Despite all the protections put in place to ensure elections integrity, it still seemed like a dubious idea to require the person in charge of overseeing the election to vie for votes as a participant — rather like forcing the referee of a basketball game to play in the game as well.

Zeier recommended, and in 2014 commissioners adopted, a new arrangement in which a separate position was created to administer elections under supervision from the chief administrative officer, also an unelected position. Zeier was hired as the CAO, and Rebecca Connors was appointed election administrator.

Now that Connors is planning to relocate to Helena soon, the three-member Board of County Commissioners is taking the opportunity to review the three-year-old system and solicit public feedback.

It’s a struggle to strike the right balance between undue political influence and direct accountability. Even the Elections Advisory Committee, a council of local appoint citizens that advises the elections administrator, was nearly split on the issue. However, they ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of keeping the current system.

Appointed, rather than elected, elections administrators are still a relatively new concept in Montana, with only eight other counties using the same system. However, it’s one that’s sure to catch on as more counties realize the ever-increasing complexity, not to mention threats of politically motivated influence, of managing elections.

On the other side of the argument, there’s a strong case to be made for maintaining accountability to voters through elections. Under the previous system, if voters did not like the way elections were being handled for any reason, they could elect a new person to oversee them.

The problem with this kind of accountability is that it left election managers vulnerable to political retribution as well. Voters might be tempted to replace an elections official who didn’t provide the desired outcome, regardless of the integrity of the system.

Missoula County’s elections office is currently under the microscope thanks to Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, a Republican who has advocated against mail-in ballots and levied allegations of widespread voter misconduct. Now more than ever, we need to make sure that a qualified elections administrator is selected to push back against partisan attempts to restrict voter access and to uphold the hard-earned trust voters have long held in their local elections.

Missoula County commissioners are asking residents to comment on the current system through this Friday, Oct. 20. They will then plan on making a final decision on Oct. 26 during their 2 p.m. meeting.

Missoula County residents should take them up on their offer. Call them at 258-4877 or send an email to bcc@missoulacounty.us.

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