Missoula County’s House District 92 Republican primary last month involved more twists than a licorice stick. Try to follow along:
At the end of the June 5 primary day, Mike Hopkins held a four-vote lead over fellow Republican DJ Smith.
Six days later, Hopkins’ lead increased to six, after about 40 provisional ballots were counted.
One week later, when elected officials met on June 18 to “canvass” the vote — examining the ballots for their authenticity — the two men learned that four lost provisional ballots were discovered mixed among the Seeley Lake precinct’s voting supplies. Three ballots were cast for Smith and one was for Hopkins, dropping his lead back to four votes.
The canvassing board, made up of the three county commissioners, decided it was time for a recount. On June 20, Hopkins was still the winner, this time with a two-vote lead.
Meanwhile, the two candidates also had learned that election judges mistakenly gave six HD 92 voters ballots for HD 89 — meaning that their race could have had a different outcome, but those votes couldn’t be counted for the HD 92 race.
“My favorite part was one ballot that was counted under the recount, where the voter didn’t mark either box for the candidate, but had drawn their own circle between the two,” Hopkins said dryly. “The county commissioners apparently can determine the intent of the voter, and since the circle was slightly closer to DJ than mine, they counted it for DJ.
“For myself and DJ, it was just a frustrating thing.”
Smith echoed that sentiment.
“To say the least, it was kind of crazy,” Smith said. “The weeks that followed were confusing.”
It also was a difficult time for Dayna Causby, a North Carolina transplant for whom the June primary election was the first she ran in Missoula County as elections administrator.
“These are not mistakes anyone wants to happen, but they happened here this time,” Causby said on Tuesday. “Mistakes have happened across the country; it would be remiss of me to say that’s never happened before.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened in this close election.”
The mistakes come on the heels of last year’s allegations by Secretary of State Corey Stapleton of voter fraud in Missoula during a May 2017 special election over what he said was a single forged signature. Then-county elections administrator Rebecca Conners said the matter was only a clerical error, and Stapleton later agreed that there was no widespread voter fraud.
An email request for comment from Stapleton’s office wasn’t returned.
The drawn-out HD 92 election was caused in part by the provisional ballots. Causby explained that in Montana, anyone who wants to vote isn’t turned away at the polls. But sometimes people don’t have personal identification with them; or they might have been mailed a ballot but didn’t fill it out and send it back.
Those voters still are allowed to fill out ballots at the polling places, but these so-called provisional ballots are set aside on Election Day to give officials time to make sure the votes are valid. By law, the provisional ballots can’t be counted before 3 p.m. the Monday following the election, so after they’re filled out they’re kept separate from the other ballots.
About 40 or 50 provisional ballots were picked up from precincts in East Missoula, Potomac, Seeley Lake, Swan Lake, Bonner and Clinton. Most were counted without a hitch — except for the four provisional ballots from Seeley Lake.
“They weren’t put in the correct location when the election supplies were returned. They were supposed to be brought back election night with the rest of the county’s provisional ballots and were not,” Causby said. “They sent them back with the election supplies Thursday or the following week.”
The three canvassing board members voted to allow the four ballots to be cast. However, they couldn’t undo the lost votes from the HD 92 voters who were given the HD 89 ballots. The ballots from both districts were the same, with identical state and county slates — except for the two House of Representative candidates. So the rest of the votes were counted, except for the House candidates.
Causby said they’re not certain how the mix-up occurred, but were notified of the problem by a voter who showed the precinct judges they had given out the wrong district ballot. Since votes cast are secret, there was no way to know who deserved the missing votes.
“Those two districts are both in the same polling place and there are veteran workers who just forgot one step of the process in the morning,” Causby said.
County Commission Chairman Dave Strohmaier half-joked that any conspiracy theorists— and every member of the public — are welcome to join the election process, which is always in need of volunteers.
“Even with some of the lapses we might have seen in the last election, it’s a complex process and I think people would be proud of the work our staff does on Election Day and before,” Strohmaier said. “I’m impressed with the folks and their commitment and willingness to do their level best to try to make sure the democratic process is upheld.”
Both Hopkins and Miller said the past election is behind them, with Hopkins, the incumbent, facing Democratic candidate Lee Bridges.
“The next time I’m going to get fancy and win by four votes,” Hopkins said.