HELENA - During the 68th session of the Montana Legislature, a group of state lawmakers has been taking a deep dive into Montana’s election procedures.
Legislative leaders set up the Joint Select Committee on Election Security, and they tasked it with answering some of the questions Montana voters have asked about how elections are run.
“I’ve been hearing a lot from citizens that are concerned about our elections and our election security,” said Sen. Carl Glimm, R-Kila, who chairs the committee.
Though it was created in the wake of some Montana residents making allegations about election irregularities, Glimm said the select committee had a different focus.
“We didn’t want to go backward and look backward, what we wanted to focus on was what can we make better in our election system – try and look for things that maybe just aren't at the top of the best practices or at the cutting edge of where election security is,” he said.
The committee includes four members from the Republican majority and two from the Democratic minority.
Sen. Shane Morigeau, D-Missoula, said there can always be improvements to the system, but election officials are already doing a lot right.
“At the end of the day, what I glean from this committee is we learned a lot about processes and systems, and we learned that our Montana elections are very secure,” he said.
Over the last month, the committee has heard extensive testimony from county election officials, the Montana Secretary of State’s Office, and Election Systems & Software, the company that produces Montana’s electronic vote tabulators.
Glimm said important things came out in that testimony like the ways voting machines are secured.
“A lot of things that people speculate – they aren't made with modems in them; they don't have connectivity to a computer system,” he said.
He also pointed to the importance of Montana’s post-election audit process, when officials count ballots by hand in randomly selected precincts to see if they match with the results from the tabulators.
“When you have that tie back and that test, that helps to really give you some assurance that those numbers are what they're reporting,” said Glimm.
Morigeau said it’s important to share what the committee has heard.
“People, once they learn this information and they learn how secure Montana's elections are, they feel a lot more comfortable with things,” he said. “So I think it's just a matter of, how do we get this information out to the public?”
Starting this week, the committee will be discussing possible bills that they could propose.
Glimm said one idea is to set up a new central hub under the Montana Department of Justice that would take in and investigate election-related complaints from across the state.
“That, I think, would give the citizens a feeling of being heard and give us an opportunity to look into those instances and come out with some kind of conclusion,” he said. “Some of those allegations that are out there now – we keep hearing about them, and we don't have a real great resolution. And so I think that this is a way to give that.”
Morigeau said that’s something he’s open to, as long as it’s not making it harder for people to vote.
“In a lot of ways that could be a positive thing, because I think it takes pressure off of local officials,” he said.
Any legislation from the select committee would have to be heard in another legislative committee before moving forward.
Glimm said they plan to have any proposed bills introduced within a week or so, so they can make it through the process ahead of the transmittal deadline in early March.