In January, a group of Missoula citizens calling themselves the Missoula County Election Integrity Project (MCEIP) performed a review of ballot signature envelopes to validate the results of the county’s 2020 General Election.
Missoula’s 2020 election was conducted as an all mail-in ballot election by emergency order of former Governor Steve Bullock in response to COVID-19. MCEIP wanted to ensure that, because of the unprecedented number of mail-in ballots expected, the election day count was accurate and in compliance with state law.
According to Montana code, all mail-in ballots must be returned to the elections office in a signed ballot signature envelope. Once received, the signature on the envelope is compared to the voter registration application as the primary method used to verify the identity and eligibility of the voter.
Two members of the MCEIP ballot review team, Missoula Attorney Quentin Rhoades and former Missoula City Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard, penned an open-letter to the public, detailing the process of the review and MCEIP’s findings.
According to MCEIP, the ballot signature envelope review was planned for the second Tuesday after the November 3rd, 2020 General Election, but the review was delayed after Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman told the citizen group that they would be required to pay his office a fee of $3,000. Seaman said the fee was to cover the cost of scheduling staff time and securing a location for the review.
The group raised the $3,000 fee in late December and Seaman scheduled the review for early January.
On January 4th, the MCEIP’s 19-citizen volunteer review team gathered at Building 35 at the Missoula County Fairgrounds under the supervision of Missoula County Elections staff and Administrator Seaman.
Volunteers were provided with boxes of ballot signature envelopes one at a time by elections office staff. Two volunteers were assigned to each box to review and count ballot signature envelopes. Elections staff provided volunteers with vote tabulation sheets used in past elections.
During the review, the volunteers discovered that 4,592 ballots were missing required ballot signature envelopes.
“In Missoula County, there were 72,491 mail-in and absentee votes tallied in the November 3, 2020 general election. But the Election Office produced only 67,899 affirmation envelopes for our count. This is a discrepancy of 4,592 or 6.33% of the total votes tallied.”MCEIP Open Letter. June 15, 2021.
The ballot review team also noted dozens of ballot envelopes with duplicate signatures all addressed from Hillside Health and Rehabilitation nursing home in Missoula.
Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman told local media outlets in interviews that the ballot reviewers “counted wrong” but did not say by how much or whether or not his team recounted the ballot signature envelopes themselves.
MCEIP said that local media had not contacted any of the members of the ballot review team to conduct an interview despite media interviews with the elections administrator.
“As for the Missoula County Election Integrity Project, to date, no person from the news media has interviewed a single-one of the counters who participated in the January 4, 2021, affirmation envelope count,” Rhoades said.
One national investigative reporter with Real Clear Investigations, John R. Lott, covered the story in March.
The following is the open-letter from the Missoula County Election Integrity Project review team:
Quentin Rhoades coordinated with Bradley Seaman, the Missoula County Election Administrator, to obtain access to the voter affirmation envelopes. Due to COVID-19 protocols, a large building had to be used. Mr. Seaman’s staff also had to have time to move the envelopes from where they are warehoused to where they would be counted. We originally asked for the count to occur on the second Tuesday after the November 3 election. Mr. Seaman, however, required an advance deposit of almost $3,000 before he would schedule the staff time and find a building.
Once those funds were raised and deposited, it took him some time, but Mr. Seaman eventually secured the old Building 35 at the Fairgrounds for the week of January 4, 2021. Building 35 had one large room sufficient to accommodate 25 people under COVID-19 rules.
Mr. Seaman imposed a requirement that counters “may not take video, photos, or photocopies of any of the signature portions of an envelope. If a copy of an envelope is requested, elections staff will photocopy the envelope for the requestor and omit the signature area of the envelope.”
Lyn Hellegaard, a former City Council member, served as the team leader for the 19 volunteer counters. We all showed up at Building 35 at 9:00, on January 4, 2021. Mr. Seaman and his staff were already present. They had configured the room with a large table in the center with ballot envelopes in their sealed boxes. The Election Office staff had placed ten long tables around the room, with two chairs each six feet apart, so 20 people could count, four staff could assist by unsealing and moving the boxes of envelopes to and from the counting tables, and Mr. Seaman could be personally present during the entire process.
The initial plan was for the counters to keep track of the count tallies using note paper. Mr. Seaman, however, suggested that to be as accurate as possible, that we should use forms the Election Office had created for the purposes of election recounts. He had plenty of these forms leftover from prior elections and provided them to the counters for their use in counting envelopes. Quentin and Lyn accepted Mr. Seaman’s suggestion.
Shortly after 9:00, Quentin and Mr. Seaman gathered the counters together to discuss the process, the forms and instruct the counters on details. First, Mr. Seaman spoke and discussed his requirements. Quentin then gave directions for using the recount forms for the purposes of counting envelopes. Mr. Seaman was present during Quentin’s discussion and gave no indication of disagreement, publicly or to Quentin privately, with the method described.
The process of counting some 68,000 envelopes took about five hours. Lyn then took the count spreadsheets from the volunteers and tallied the total number of envelopes with an adding machine, preserving both the tally sheets and the adding machine tapes for future reference and inspection as necessary. Anyone who would like to see them should coordinate with Quentin, where they are kept in the custody of his law firm.
In Missoula County, there were 72,491 mail-in and absentee votes tallied in the November 3, 2020 general election. But the Election Office produced only 67,899 affirmation envelopes for our count. This is a discrepancy of 4,592 or 6.33% of the total votes tallied. It is important to note that many people voted in person in Missoula County. Upon inquiry, however, Mr. Seaman told Quentin that these people were all given absentee ballots in envelopes, with the result being that every single ballot had an identical envelope, whether the voter voted in person, by mail, or by dropping ballots into collection boxes.
A random additional count was done on a subsample of 15,455 envelopes. Of these envelopes, 55 did not have dates and 53 did not bear Election Office marks that should have been placed on them when they had the signatures checked.
Further, it was noted that dozens of ballot envelopes had identical signatures, but the Missoula County Elections Office would not allow pictures to be taken of these envelope signatures, so no systematic count was made of this problem.
During the counting process Mr. Seaman expressed no concerns about the counters’ methodology or accuracy. The process flowed smoothly. Election Office staff unsealed the boxes, brought them to the counting tables, the counters worked their way through the envelops, the staff returned the boxes of counted envelopes to the center table for resealing and the process proceeded. The Election Office staff did monitor the counters, as they expressed a concern at some point that some of the envelopes could have been doubled-counted. If so, however, the envelope discrepancy would be even greater and therefore all the more troubling. The staff expressed no worry of any undercounting.
Finally, during the process of arranging for the envelope count, in an email exchange, Quentin asked Mr. Seaman on December 22, 2020, as follows: “Were video images of these processes captured on media? If so, is the media available?” Mr. Seaman responded: “I will have to work with our IT department to see if the live stream was recorded or just broadcast. If it has been recorded and is available we will provide it with other digital records.” On January 4, 2021, Mr. Seaman sent a hyperlink in an email that read: “Here are links to the audit logs from the tabulators and a link to the live stream from the Counting Center:” When the link would not function, however, Andy Nelson, of the County IT department reported to Mr. Seaman’s inquiry on January 7, 2021: “Our Milestone system recorded the video, but those videos are only held for a month before being archived and purged. The latest videos we have there are from December 20th.” What is troubling about this explanation, however, is that the County’s video retention policy, which is freely available at the County website, requires video to be archived for “60 days.” Quentin asked for the video 49 days after the election. No explanation was given for why the video was purged in violation of written County record retention policy.
On February 4, 2021, Quentin met with Mr. Seaman at the Election Office to discuss the envelope discrepancy and to review some of the questioned envelopes that had been reserved from the resealed boxes. At that time, Mr. Seaman expressed great concern over the discrepancy. His only explanation was to speculate that perhaps his staff had mislaid a couple of the boxes, although he felt that was unlikely. Having watched the counting process, he did not say he felt the counters could have made large errors in their findings.
Finally, it is important to note that the count we did is sufficiently reliable that it would be admissible evidence in a court of law. Opinions are not typically something lay persons are allowed to express in court. Opinions are allowed only after a foundation of expertise, based on education, training or experience is first demonstrated. But this is not true with the results of a mere count. Lay people are trusted by the courts to understand the requirements of counting and are thus allowed to testify in court to their “opinion” as to the results of a count. So as much as Mr. Seaman now insists the count was not accurate, it is sufficiently reliable to consist of admissible evidence in court. Moreover, he suggested the method we used, and he was personally present with his staff during the entire process. Again, not once did they express any concern for our methodology or our accuracy.