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GOP-backed group again claims Missoula election 'irregularities', county pushes back

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Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula

State Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, talks on the phone inside the Montana State Capitol on Jan. 4, 2021.

A Republican state lawmaker, Rep. Brad Tschida, is again alleging "troubling irregularities" in Missoula County's 2020 general election.

His lawyer, Quentin Rhoades, sent a letter Thursday to several government officials reiterating claims made earlier this year and offering more details. Those claims include allegations that thousands of ballots were mailed to ineligible voters and that the county elections office erased a video recording of the vote count.

All three county commissioners — Dave Strohmaier, Josh Slotnick and Juanita Vero — are again strongly pushing back on the allegations.

"This is the latest attempt by this group to sow doubt in the elections process among Montana voters," they said in a statement to the Missoulian.

Tschida has declined their invitations to learn about the ways they safeguard the integrity of elections, the commissioners said.

"Instead, he's relied on a single error-riddled hand-count of affirmation envelopes, faulty interpretation of state statute and county policies, and conspiracy theories peddled nationally by self-proclaimed 'experts' with no actual election experience to continue to push his baseless claims in the media," the commissioners wrote. "Even worse, he expects taxpayers to foot the bill for it."

Tschida, who represents House District 97 (which includes Lolo and a swath of area around Highway 12), has hired Rhoades as part of what they call the “Missoula County Election Integrity Project.”

In a 52-page memo sent to the Montana Secretary of State, the Montana Attorney General and the Missoula County Attorney, they present the findings of a 20-person team led by former Republican Missoula City Council member Lyn Hellegaard. They say they obtained a voter registration and history database from the Montana Secretary of State for a $1,000 fee.

“The outcome of the investigation suggests strongly that the Elections Office either suffers from fundamental incompetence or has been derelict in its duties to maintain up to date and accurate voter rolls and electronic records,” Rhoades wrote. “Whether accidentally or on purpose, the result is a padding of invalid voter registration, providing ample room for mischief by wrong-doers and doubt in the public as to election integrity.

"At best, the Elections Office has not performed well as a steward of the voter rolls," Rhoades continued.

In their findings, the group says “thousands of ballots were mailed to ineligible voters in sufficient numbers to have affected the outcome of several elections.”

The group also says the elections office erased the video recording of the Nov. 3, 2020 ballot counts.

Rhoades wrote that the Integrity Project consists “exclusively of local volunteers who all serve or have served on a pro-bono publico basis ... It is not affiliated with any political party, non-profit organization or for-profit corporate entity or large donors."

When asked if there were any Democrats on the team, Tschida said he wasn’t sure.

“I don’t know the particular makeup of the group,” he said. “When we’re talking about counting envelopes, this isn’t a partisan thing. Any attempt to try to twist and turn this into a partisan issue is not a reasonable intention. We don’t intend to make it a partisan issue.”

The group’s objective is to make sure “elections are open, fair and honest,” Tschida said.

“The Elections Office has questioned the competency of the people doing the assessment, that’s their only way of objecting to differences,” Tschida told the Missoulian. “We continue to look and continue to find things that give us pause in saying there was 100% accuracy in the election findings. We want every person who should have voted to have their vote counted and every person who should not have voted to not have their vote counted.

"And right now that is being called into question.”

The three county commissioners told the Missoulian that only the judicial branch has the authority to adjudicate elections.

"We’ve been saying that all along, and a recent Legislative Services Division legal analysis reaffirmed that point," the commissioners wrote. "We continue to assert that, if this group so strongly believes the allegations in this document are true, then they should contest the election in court. We suspect they will not pursue that route because their short-term goal is to erode voters’ faith in local elections."

The commissioners say they believe the group wants to influence other state lawmakers.

"Their ultimate goal, though, is to push the Legislature to make drastic changes to state election laws, changes that would further diminish Montanans' right to participate in their democracy," the commissioners wrote.

This past March, the same group led by Tschida and Rhoades questioned the integrity of the Missoula County election process by claiming that 4,592 ballots did not have affirmation envelopes and should not have been included in the final election vote total. Tschida sent a letter in March to the Secretary of State’s office with his claims.

All three Missoula County commissioners called the accusations made by Tschida “spurious” and said they relied on “an unverified error-ridden single review.”

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen did not take a stance on the issue, but in April released a statement saying she would enhance election transparency by requiring the retention of video records, among other things.

When reached by the Missoulian on Thursday, Rhoades said the group has again presented their findings from March along with a "host of others" as well. He said the findings are not allegations.

Rhoades hopes the errors will somehow be corrected, he said.

"And we can have more confidence in the system than we have now," he said.

The county commissioners said they "stand by their hardworking elections staff and all that they do to ensure the utmost integrity of elections."

They've invited the public to many open houses to see the vote counting processes firsthand.

"Once again, we offer this invitation to Rep. Tschida and his comrades: If they have the courage of their convictions, let’s go to court," the commissioners wrote. "Anything less is just noise." 

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