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THOMPSON FALLS – There’s been a problem with the general election ballots in Sanders County, and Clerk and Recorder Nichol Scribner wants the public to know what it is, and how it’s being handled.

“There’s been so much media on a rigged election, and why some people say we shouldn’t trust election results,” Scribner said. “I feel it’s so important to get this out to the public. If we intended to intentionally do harm, we’d keep it secret. I want people to know our goal is 100 percent accuracy.”

The problem was discovered last week, as Scribner’s office prepared for its first public testing of ballot-counting machines.

When a test deck of ballots that had already been hand-counted was run through tabulators, the results did not match the hand count, and some of the ballots were rejected.

Scribner called Election Systems and Software, the Omaha, Nebraska, company that provides the county with everything from tabulators, and maintenance for them, to the stock that ballots are printed on.

The trouble didn’t stay a mystery for long.

At least, that’s what they thought.

The ES&S programmer that Sanders County works with noticed that, from photographs of the ballots provided by Scribner, the paper ballots appeared to have not been cut properly.

“There are cut lines that should be the width of a fingernail,” Scribner said. “But instead, they were entire block squares.”

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They thought they had gotten to the bottom of the problem, although that certainly didn’t solve it. Sanders County had already provided more than 3,600 of the improperly cut ballots to absentee voter and people who have registered to vote since Oct. 11.

Here’s how Sanders County election officials will deal with that, Scribner said: Every absentee and late-registration ballot will be counted by hand after polls open on Nov. 8. Machines will not count any of them.

The county also ordered 7,899 new ballots to be distributed to Sanders County precincts on election day. They were due back Friday, Scribner said, and will be tested several times before, and on, Nov. 8.

“If the tests are not 100 percent accurate,” Scribner said, “we’ll hand-count all the ballots on Nov. 8.”

But by late Wednesday, there was a new rub.

ES&S rushed a test deck for the new, properly cut, replacement ballots to the county. The clerk and recorder’s office put them through the tabulator.

And once again, the results didn’t match the hand count.

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ES&S “had insisted it wasn’t a problem with the software,” Scribner said. “I called them back and said, ‘Please check the software.’ ”

The company then downloaded new software for the Sanders County tabulators, Scribner said. When the test-deck was re-run, the numbers matched the hand count.

That will hardly be the end of it.

Election officials will not only run more tests with test ballots provided by ES&S, Scribner said. They also ordered another 225 unnumbered ballots that county employees will mark, hand-count, and run through the tabulators.

“The person that runs them through doesn’t get the information” on what the ballot totals should look like, Scribner said. “They’ll just print off the reports. We’ll test every candidate in every race.”

Not only is the public welcome to observe the tests, the clerk and recorder said the county will try to have a member of the public there to watch, “even if we have to grab somebody who’s standing in line at the Treasurer’s Office.”

“It’s so important,” Scribner said. “That’s why we test and re-test. If any of the tests are not 100 percent, we’ll hand-count. We’ll be testing, testing, testing 'til the day of the election.”

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Election Systems and Software provides services, tabulators and ballots to at least 44 of Montana’s 56 counties, according to the Montana Secretary of State's Office. Sanders County is the only one that received improperly cut ballots, or has had issues with ES&S software, said Emily Dean, director of communications for the Montana Secretary of State’s Office.

“ES&S is the vendor for a lot of states,” Dean said. “This is the only case they can find” where ballots were not cut correctly so that tabulating machines could read them. No other Montana counties have had problems with the software, she added.

A dozen Montana counties do not use ES&S tabulators, and therefore may not use ES&S, Dean said.

The unexpected problem in Sanders County “is why we require all counties to do exceptions testing, pre-election public testing, Election Day testing and post-election audits,” Dean said.

In post-election audits, random precincts from random counties are hand-counted and the numbers compared to vote totals to see if they match.

“We’ve never had an incident where it didn’t,” Dean said.

ES&S also prints ballots for some of the counties, but normally only provides the stock to Sanders County, which then hires a local business to print the ballots.

However, ES&S is providing the stock, and doing the printing as well, for the replacement ballots, at no charge to the county. Taxpayers will be on the hook for paying extra people to hand count all the absentee and late-registrant ballots, Scribner said.

The clerk and recorder has lined up 21 people – seven three-person teams – to deal with the hand count. Most are courthouse employees who would normally have the day off – it’s a holiday for state and county employees – and who will be paid time-and-a-half.

“I don’t have enough election judges to pull in to do a hand count,” Scribner said. “It will probably be a minimum of 12 hours to hand-count just the absentee and late-registrant ballots.”

If ballots cast on Nov. 8 also need to be counted by hand, “It will take us into the next day,” she added.

“I believe we have to be open and transparent about all this,” Scribner said. “I don’t want anyone to have the perception that there’s been anything about it that’s secretive. It’s so important.”

Scribner said anyone with questions, or who would like to observe any of the testing that will be done in the coming days, can contact her at 827-6922, or by email at nscribner@co.sanders.mt.us.

“And anyone is welcome to walk in, and watch our daily activities at any time,” she said.

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