Another Observer Comes Forward, Casting Doubt on Missoula’s Second Recount of Ballot Envelopes

In an affidavit signed by one observer of the second recount of affirmation envelopes (also known as ballot signature envelopes) from the Missoula County 2020 General Election, the observer stated they could not be sure that the envelopes that were counted were from the 2020 General Election.

In an interview with Western Montana News, Mr. Rob Kahler of Missoula, the recount observer who signed the affidavit, said that when he arrived on March 28th at the Missoula County Elections Department warehouse on Russell Street, the boxes containing the envelopes were already opened and that, contrary to media reports of 33 boxes of envelopes, Kahler counted and signed off on only 32 boxes of envelopes. The discrepancy echoes a similar discrepancy noted in an affidavit from another observer, Lyn Hellegaard, who was also present for the first count of envelopes in January 2021. In her affidavit, Hellegaard stated the county only produced 31 boxes of affirmation envelopes during the first count.

Kahler also noted that, according to the Missoula County Elections website, boxes containing historical election materials are sealed with pink seals that include an election judge signature, but that when he arrived at the warehouse to observe the count, there were no pink seals on any of the boxes and no logs available to check the chain of custody to determine when the boxes were resealed or reopened.

Still photo from Missoula County Elections Department procedures video. April 1, 2022.

Kahler said it appeared obvious that the boxes had been opened numerous times because of fraying on the surface of the boxes from the removal of tamper tape used to seal the boxes of envelopes. He asked Missoula County Republican Committee Chair Vondene Kopetski, who paid for the second recount, if she was concerned about the already opened boxes. Kopetski replied that she had ran her hand over the boxes and found the surface of them to be dusty and that because of that she was “confident” that the boxes were secured.

Montana Public Records Act requests for full chain of custody logs related to the resealing and reopening of the boxes containing the affirmation envelopes have been denied by Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman. Seaman told the Missoula County Election Integrity Project (MCEIP), the citizen-led group who conducted the first count in January 2021, that he would not release the chain of custody logs and said that the group would need to get a court order to access that information.

Seaman did provide a March 25, 2022, transport log for the boxes of affirmation envelopes to Quentin M. Rhoades, attorney for the MCEIP, but Rhoades noted it was incomplete and not a full chain of custody. “This is not a complete transport log, much less a ‘chain of custody,’” Rhoades said in an email. “Note it contains no reference to delivery of the boxes for the January 4, 2021, count we conducted. The county blew it. They failed to retain a chain of custody of the envelopes.”

During the second recount, Kahler and other observers were instructed to sit six feet away from elections staff who were counting the envelopes and that they were not allowed to speak to the counters if they had questions. Kahler said that because they were so far away from the counters, he was unable to decipher signatures or dates on the envelopes.

“We were told that, as observers, we were to ensure that each bundle of envelopes being counted included 25 envelopes. But all I could confirm from my vantage point was that the items being counted were envelopes,” Kahler’s affidavit stated. “Because of the way they were being counted it appeared to have 25 envelopes in a bundle, but I could not confirm that.”

Kahler said that the counter he was observing frequently moved into positions that made it difficult to impossible to confirm the counts tallied. “One of the envelope counters who was counting envelopes at the station I was assigned periodically sat with her back to me and constantly changed her position when counting so I could not see the envelopes I was supposed to tally,” Kahler said. “I got the feeling she was trying to interfere with my observation.”

When Kahler rose to see what was happening, he was immediately ordered to sit back down by elections staff.

“We, as observers, were not allowed to touch or inspect any envelopes,” Kahler said. “There would be no way we could know that those envelopes were from the 2020 election.”

Kahler also noted that for the envelopes he was able to see, some envelopes had a different color border than others and some envelopes were not marked with a line through the address to indicate that the voter’s signature had been verified. Kahler asked elections administrator Seaman why envelopes would have a different color. Seaman told Kahler that the colors on the border of the envelopes correspond to different election years and that the elections office had “ran out” of red bordered envelopes for the 2020 Election and had to use green bordered envelopes from a different year.

Missoula County ballot envelope with red colored border on envelope indicating unique election.

The envelopes without marks through the address to identify that the signature was checked were also questioned by Kahler. Deputy Elections Administrator Nate Koyan told Kahler at the recount that the missing lines were “employee error” and that he would provide more training for elections workers. Koyan did not confirm whether the signatures were checked on those affirmation envelopes.

About 2,000 affirmation envelopes were in each of the 32 boxes according to Kahler which would amount to an estimated 64,000 envelopes in total. In the 2020 General Election, 72,491 ballots were cast in the all mail-in ballot election which would amount to 8,491 fewer envelopes than total ballots counted in the 2020 General Election.

After Kahler read media reports of “33 numbered boxes” of affirmation envelopes counted at the second recount, he emailed Cameo Flood, a volunteer with the Missoula County Republican Central Committee who invited him to observe the recount. Flood shared a photo of the 33rd box which was located under a table in a photo taken March 25th, three days before the recount. Flood said the 33rd box contained affirmation envelopes that had “corrected registrations (different addresses submitted by the voter).”

Boxes of affirmation envelopes from the 2020 General Election. A 33rd box is located under the table. March 25, 2022.

The box under the table did not appear to have the same series sheet identifying the box number out of the total that the other 32 labeled boxes were marked with. If the unmarked 33rd box also included 2,000 affirmation envelopes, that would bring the total number of affirmation envelopes to an estimated 66,000 envelopes, amounting to 6,491 fewer envelopes than ballots cast. During the first count of affirmation envelopes in January 2021, a discrepancy of 4,592 fewer envelopes than ballots cast was found. Elections officials announced to local media that after the second recount there was a discrepancy of 71 affirmation envelopes but did not provide a reason for the discrepancy.

Five months prior to participating in the second recount of affirmation envelopes, Kahler was asked by the County Republicans to canvas a list of addresses that the county elections office said were valid addresses where voters had been registered. After an in-person and digital canvass of addresses provided, Kahler said he found that 90% of the addresses he was given did not exist.

Missoula County Elections Department sent out ballots to all registered voters in the 2020 General Election which resulted in an unprecedented 79.69% voter turnout. Records related to the 2020 General Election are set to be destroyed in November. Federal statute requires that they be kept for at least 22 months.

The second recount of affirmation envelopes from the 2020 General Election conducted in Missoula County have revealed more discrepancies and surfaced more questions than the first count. Until Missoula County provides full transparency and access to elections related records that are the right of the public to inspect, Missoulians will continue to have questions about the results of the 2020 General Election and the competency of the leadership that runs the department.

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