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GOP-backed group claims 'irregularities' on Missoula County 2020 ballots

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Ballot 'irregularities'

Poll watchers were observing voting lines at the Missoula County Elections Center on Election Day in this Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020 file photo. A Republican-backed group is questioning the integrity of the 2020 election in Missoula County.

A Republican-backed group is questioning the integrity of the 2020 election in Missoula County.

The group submitted a records request to the Missoula County Elections Office on Oct. 30 for access to all signed ballot envelopes. Around 20 volunteers, led by former Montana House Majority Leader and current HD-97 Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, counted the affirmation envelopes on Jan. 4.

They contend that what they found could have swayed state representative and state senator elections in Missoula County — 4,592 ballots county-wide did not have affirmation envelopes and should not have been included in the final election vote total, according to their tally.

All 16 state senator and representative races within Missoula County on the 2020 ballot were decided by 4,500 votes or less.

Affirmation envelopes contain a bar code tied to the Secretary of State's voter registry and must be signed by the voter as part of the verification process.

The group characterizes its review of the ballot count as an "audit." 

The Secretary of State's office certified the Montana election nearly four months ago on Nov. 30. Tschida wrote a letter to Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen in late March and requested a meeting.

"I’d like also to discuss further steps that might be taken to uncover and prevent election fraud and to protect election integrity in Montana," the letter reads.

Legal work on the records request was done by Missoula attorney Quentin Rhoades, who was retained by Tschida prior to the 2020 election.

In addition to the signed ballot envelopes, the group also asked the elections office to retain any "altered" ballot, sought any records about voting machine malfunctions, and inquired about records from election resolution committees.

The Missoula County Elections Office has pushed back strongly on the notion that there are irregularities in the vote count. Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman is confident the county would win any legal challenge.

"There's a clear process that they could challenge an election result through the courts," Seaman said. "We kind of welcome that process, because that would help voters feel confident, because we know that there is no merit behind this."

Experts say voting fraud issues in the United States have been minuscule and between 2006 and 2016, only one such case was found in Montana.

Outside connections

John Lott Jr., a conservative author, academic and commentator who has a house in Missoula, blasted the Missoula County election and Seaman in particular in a March 24 post on a conservative website, RealClearInvestigations, though he says he himself was not directly involved in the review.

Entitled "A River of Doubt Runs Through Mail Voting in Montana," the post uses the term "machine politics" and is highly critical of universal mail-in voting.

It details aspects of the counting process and alleges issues with the election and the information request process, claiming there were similar signatures on some ballots and a lack of access to a recording of the live-streamed video of the ballot count.

Seaman responded that videos of election counts are automatically deleted after 30 days and the request for the livestreamed video was outside that period.

Rhoades is Lott's lawyer and knows him through the Montana Shooting Sports Association. Lott was briefly a senior adviser in the Trump administration's Department of Justice between October 2020 and January 2021.

Lott has written several gun advocacy books, which have been lauded by top national GOP leaders.

Aspects of Lott's research have been filled with controversy, much of which has to do with statistics and data.

In one famous incident, he argued in a study that gun ownership decreases violent crime. That led to perhaps his most famous book, "More Guns, Less Crime." When questions mounted and he was pushed to release the data behind the study, he claimed it had been lost in a computer crash, according to a report by Mother Jones. He apparently then posed as a former student online in an attempt to defend his work, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

He has also been involved with controversial claims that legal abortion increases crime, gun control laws do not prevent mass shootings and that race does not play a role in police shootings.

More recently, Lott has taken aim at the election process. In a paper written Dec. 21 and revised on Jan. 6 — the day the U.S. Capitol was swarmed by Trump supporters — Lott claims his modeling formula shows evidence of fraud in the absentee voting process in Georgia and Pennsylvania.

The paper was disseminated widely. Peter Navarro, who was the Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy under Trump, tweeted out the link on Dec. 29, which immediately went viral. Rhoades also mentioned the paper during a conversation with the Missoulian.

Lott asserts that differences in Trump's share of the absentee ballots in neighboring voting precincts shows statistical evidence of fraud. Using the same data set Lott used, Stanford professor Justin Grimmer, the University of Chicago's Andrew C. Eggers and Stanford's Haritz Garro say they disproved the conclusions Lott draws from the data set and call his claims "utterly baseless" in a responsive paper.

Lott's assertions, the paper says, "are entirely dependent on the completely arbitrary order in which pairs of precincts in other counties are entered in the dataset."

"And so we show that there was this problem in his data. When you did a modeling procedure that addressed that, ... there was no substantively real difference between the absentee vote share for Biden in precincts in either Georgia or Pennsylvania," Grimmer told the Missoulian.

Lott became involved and interested in the Missoula County elections in late January or early February, according to Rhoades, who is doing the legal work pro bono.

Missoula County is the only county in Montana the group is looking at, Rhoades said.

Editor's note: John Lott has written a rebuttal to this article, entitled "Missoulian’s one-sided attack on credibility." Read it here.

A partisan issue

Rep. Tschida entered the picture just before the 2020 election.

Rhoades said he has looked into the Missoula County election from a neutral standpoint and Lott from a conservative analysis standpoint. Campaign filings reveal Tschida donated $500 to Donald Trump on Dec. 24. The purpose, according to the filings, was "contribution for the legal battles surrounding the battleground state."

Tschida's donation was one of four Montana campaign donations to Trump since 2016, three of which were in the amount of $500. His campaign's donation was the only one after the election had been declared for Biden. 

It was Tschida's first monetary donation of any sort to the Trump presidential campaign. Publicly available data by the Federal Election Commission reveals that Tschida did not personally contribute to the Trump campaign in the 2016 or 2020 election cycle.

Tschida also complained of long-standing issues in Missoula County in the letter to Jacobsen.

"They began meeting in October, 2020, to work on ways to insure election integrity in Missoula County, which has a long record of the kinds of anomalies in its elections as were seen in the last fall nationwide," Tschida writes to Jacobsen as he explains the formation of the review group.

A request to the Tschida camp for comment was not answered. 

Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Contact him on Twitter @jordyhansen or via email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com

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