Montana’s new election system on track to go live in January
Tests for Montana’s new elections system, ElectMT, went smoothly during the primary election in June, and it will be ready to go live in January, according to Elections and Voter Services Manager Stuart Fuller.
Fuller offered that assessment at a meeting Thursday in Helena, and the Commissioner of Political Practices said it’s good news for Montanans.
“You just received the presentation of why Montanans can feel confident about Montana’s elections, that they’re secure, safe and fair,” said Jeff Mangan, Commissioner of Political Practices. “The information that you received today and the information that’s in their offices, in your local offices, is all the information you need, and we need to combat the misinformation and disinformation that’s out there.”
Giving an update to the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee, Fuller said that during testing, the Secretary of State’s Office did run into hiccups, like the ballot not being centered on the page in some instances and issues with the Libertarian ballot values not populating like other parties.
Fuller explained that there was a Libertarian ballot in the eastern congressional district, but not for the western congressional district, and they had to deal with overlapping legislative districts that spanned the gap between the two districts.
“The new system was kind of like ‘Oh, I’m gonna generate the Libertarian ballot for all the counties,’” Fuller said. “That doesn’t quite work.”
However, Fuller said that they expected to identify issues through testing, and they are working with vendors to sort them out running up to the test during the General Election in November.
Twelve counties participated in the parallel testing in June, with some conducting double entry for their entire county, meaning they ran every ballot through both systems, where others did it with select precincts due to staffing, according to Fuller.
Butte-Silver Bow Clerk and Recorder Linda Sajor said during the meeting that parallel testing went well for them and that they will continue to participate in November.
“I think we are leaps and bounds ahead of where we were last year, and I am confident that we’ll be ready to go live in January,” Sajor said.
The positive reviews for the new system are a stark contrast to what elections officials reported last fall, several testifying before SAVA to say the new system was not ready for prime time. Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore said last November the test results had barely hit 70 percent of the criteria written into the program so it would function under Montana law.
During Thursday’s meeting, Fuller also described the state’s audit process, which involves the Attorney General’s Office, the Office of Public Instruction and the state auditor meeting to roll dice to select races, one statewide race, one federal race, one statewide ballot issue, if any, to be audited by at least one precinct per county.
“It’s riveting television,” Fuller said.
Of the 56 counties in Montana, 40 participated in the post-election audit, with Lincoln County being one of the exempted counties due to having to hand count ballots after they were printed a quarter-inch too short to be fed into the tabulator, Fuller said.
Hand counts are done to mimic how the tabulator would read ballots as a quality control measure, and differ from recounts in that they are not looking at voter intent. Fuller gave the example that if a voter didn’t follow instructions properly and circled where they should have filled in a bubble, that would not be picked up in a hand count but would be during a recount. This would be an “explainable” difference.
Fuller said the audit found that no county had more than five unexplainable differences between the tabulated and hand count, with six counties reporting any difference. They include: Cascade, Granite, Park, Ravalli, Rosebud and Valley.
Following the update from Fuller, the interim committee heard presentations about potential bill drafts concerning elections, especially for laws where the court had weighed in. Mangan spoke about three bill proposals, one of which would formally repeal the Montana Clean Campaign Act after a U.S. District Court found it was unconstitutional earlier this year.
Staff Attorney Ginger Aldrich also presented on bill drafts that would make requirements for ballot initiatives more clear, in line with constitutional amendments from 2019 and surrounding in part ballot initiative submission timing, as it can sometimes conflict with the timing of the session. The May 2022 presentation on the ballot measures can be found online.