ORIGINAL: Dr. John Lott has an investigative piece on mail-in vote fraud in Montana. Some of the relevant documents are available at the end of this post.
MISSOULA COUNTY, Mont. — A mountainous, 2,600-square-mile region with a population of approximately 119,600 does not seem like your prototypical setting for machine politics. Yet a recent audit of mail-in ballots cast there found irregularities characteristic of larger urban centers — on a level that could have easily swung local elections in 2020, and statewide elections in cycles past.
The Biden administration, the Democrat-controlled Congress, and the Democratic National Committee are collectively pressing to both nationalize, and make permanent, many of the extraordinary pandemic-driven voting measures implemented during the 2020 election —particularly mass mail-in voting.
Political leaders and prominent media outlets have dismissed concerns raised by critics that such measures invite voter fraud. But could the election in small-county Missoula call all that into question?
The story at hand begins during the pandemic summer of 2020, when the then-governor, Democrat Steve Bullock, issued a directive permitting counties to conduct the general election fully by mail. In the run-up to the election, a court also struck down Montana’s law aimed at preventing ballot harvesting.
Missoula, Montana’s second most populous county and one of its most heavily Democratic, opted in to the universal vote-by-mail regime.
In response, in October 2020, several county residents with experience targeting election integrity issues formed a group to ensure the legitimacy of the 2020 vote. The members contended that Missoula County had shown anomalies in elections past.
In November, the group approached state Rep. Brad Tschida, a Republican, to formally take up the issue. Tschida hired a lawyer involved in the group, Quentin Rhoades, to represent him in corresponding with Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman, a Democratic appointee and a longtime supporter of progressive causes.
Seaman’s office complied with Tschida’s request for access to all of the county’s ballot envelopes, and on Jan. 4 a team of volunteers, overseen by Rhoades, conducted an audit with the assistance of the Missoula County Elections Office. The audit consisted of both a count and review of all ballot envelopes and comparing that to the number of officially recorded votes during the Nov. 3, 2020, general election.
Its conclusions were troubling: 4,592 out of the 72,491 mail-in ballots lacked envelopes— 6.33% of all votes. Without an officially printed envelope with registration information, a voter’s signature, and a postmark indicating whether it was cast on time, election officials cannot verify that a ballot is legitimate. It is against the law to count such votes.
What’s more, according to auditors, county employees claimed that during the post-election audit, some of the envelopes may have been double-counted, possibly indicating an even higher number of missing envelopes.
Auditors also tested a smaller, random sub-sample of 15,455 mail-in envelopes for other defects. Of these, 55 lacked postmark dates, and 53 never had their signatures checked — for a total of 0.7% of all ballots in the sample. No envelope had more than one irregularity.
Extrapolating from the sub-sample, that would make more than 5,000 of Missoula County’s votes — roughly 7% — with unexplained irregularities.
Still another issue arose during the audit that aroused auditors’ suspicions: Dozens of ballot envelopes bore strikingly similar, distinctive handwriting styles in the signatures, suggesting that one or several persons may have filled out and submitted multiple ballots, an act of fraud.
One auditor asserted that of 28 envelopes reviewed from the same address, a nursing home, all 28 signatures looked “exactly the same” stylistically.
Another auditor reported that among the envelopes she reviewed, two very unique signatures appeared dozens of times, describing one such signature as starting out flat, moving to a peak, and tapering out, and another as consisting of numerous circles — a “bubble signature.”
Auditors were unable to conduct a more comprehensive count because, they say, Missoula County elections officials refused to permit them to take pictures of the signatures, and envelopes were not shared across the different tabulation tables at the audit, so reviewers could not cross-compare ballot samples.
Another concern of the auditors: The county elections office did not provide access to video footage it claimed to have recorded of vote-counting activities.
Contacted by RealClearInvestigations for comment on these issues, Seaman cited an agreement by the parties to the audit that no photographs of ballot signatures would be allowed. And he said the county’s video of vote-counting “was past the retention schedule when requested” although Rhoades’ Dec. 22 emailed request for it — an email examined by RCI — was within what Rhoades described as the 60-day window during which county records must be retained by law.
Finally, Seaman explained the 4,592 ballots without envelopes found in the audit as a discrepancy due to the lack of a “double-check process.” The auditors said that during the audit, the only concern raised by the election office staff was the opposite — that envelopes might be double-counted, not undercounted — and they claim that they followed all the procedures laid out by the county. Rhoades told RCI that when he asked Administrator Seaman after the audit about more ballots recorded than the envelope count, Seaman appeared extremely nervous and had no explanation.
The magnitude of defective — and potentially fraudulently cast — ballots identified during the Missoula County ballot audit is particularly troubling given the small margins by which local 2020 elections were decided, and previous statewide elections have been decided.
The 2020 local House District 94 race was determined by 435 votes; that of local House District 96, a mere 190.
In 2012, Bullock won his gubernatorial race by just 7,571 votes. Montana’s then-superintendent of public instruction, also a Democrat, won her race by an even smaller margin of 2,231 votes. If Missoula County generated problem ballots on the level of those cast during 2020, they may well have swung these statewide elections.
Concerns over mass mail-in balloting are essentially a Republican issue. The party-line vote in which the Democrat-controlled U.S. House passed HR 1, a bill that would result in universal mail-in voting across America, is a testament to this fact.
The Missoula audit appeared unprecedented in auditing all the envelopes, with other counties conducting 2020 signature audits, including Cobb (Georgia) and Maricopa (Arizona), counting relatively small ballot envelope samples.
What comes next for Missoula County, given the discrepancies identified? State authorities say they are concerned about the findings, and may well take them up in a joint hearing of the Montana Senate and House judiciary committees. State representatives are also seeking to reinstate laws that would restrict ballot harvesting, as well as other election reforms.John R. Lott, Jr., “A River of Doubt Runs Through Mail Voting in Big Sky Country,” Real Clear Investigations, March 24, 2021.
Confirmation that all votes were by mail-in ballots, Bradley Seaman stated on January 27, 2021, at 8:25 a.m.: “2. All voter in this election received a mail ballot. There was not a poll book for voters who voted in person, instead they were issued an absentee ballot and their signature was verified following the same process as all other voters.”
5. Retention of Video Records Missoula County will avoid creating unnecessary video records, retaining records not needed for the fulfillment of the mission of Missoula County, and engaging in practices that could place personally identifiable information on public view. Recorded digital video images will be stored on hardware in a secure area of Missoula County. Recordings will be retained for no more than 60 days in accordance with Missoula County’s records retention schedule, unless required as part of an ongoing investigation or litigation.
Representative Brad Tschida’s letter to SOS
Data files from the count of the envelopes are available here.
Additional interviews were conducted with Quentin Rhoades, Lyn Hellegaard and Lisa Melina Pyron.
Question and Response to a reporter:
-From my understanding – and feel free to correct me if I’m wrong – each of these affirmation envelopes has a barcode that is tied into the MT Secretary of State’s voter database, which is then scanned and a report is printed that those ballots are physically present, which are then confirmed by hand. I guess I’m struggling to understand how 4,592 ballots that were scanned into the system are not physically present.
In talking to the people involved, the Missoula County Election officials set up the process for the count, they supervised the count, and it is my understanding that those doing the count did exactly as they were told by the election officials. Counting these envelopes is not a difficult process. The only comment made to those doing the count during the process was that they were told that they may have gotten too high of a count, a higher count of envelopes than there were envelopes, nothing in the opposite direction was mentioned.
On top of that is the lack of the video recordings of the initial opening of ballots and recount. Once the FOIA request was lodged all information that could be relevant to litigation should have been maintained, and Brad Seaman was alerted to this in two letters prior to the election. In addition, even though it wasn’t necessary, an email explicitly noting all video evidence was sent on December 22, 2020.
Quentin Rhoades claims to me that under Montana law as soon as the county received his FOIA request letters before the election, given that alerted them to the possibility of legal action, they were obligated to keep all related records, even though he hadn’t spelled them out in those initial letters. He told me that would include the video records.
The Missoula County Policy Book itself is not particularly helpful.
Missoula County Policy Book –V2017.024 p. 24 https://www.missoulacounty.us/home/showdocument?id=317955. Retention of Video Records Missoula County will avoid creating unnecessary video records, retaining records not needed for the fulfillment of the mission of Missoula County, and engaging in practices that could place personally identifiable information on public view. Recorded digital video images will be stored on hardware in a secure area of Missoula County. Recordings will be retained for no more than 60 days in accordance with Missoula County’s records retention schedule, unless required as part of an ongoing investigation or litigation.
The county is claiming that they are relying on the supposed 30 day rule for the state (which I haven’t seen yet), but that is completely irrelevant if Rhoades is correct about the filing of the FOIA request. Even it the state says at least 30 days, the legal notification would take precedence.
This lost of crucial evidence to monitor what happened in the election day count is very concerning. The County is saying trust us that they did everything right, but the evidence that they were required to keep to show that they in fact did it right has been lost despite multiple notifications that they needed to keep that evidence.
Whether the 7% gap is due to incompetence or ballot stuffing, both are serious concerns. You can’t have that large of errors in voting and say that there is no problem with the system. If it is due to incompetence by the county election officials, that level of error is just much too big. It is bigger than the vote difference in county elections and given that Missoula is the second largest county in the state it can impact statewide races.
More notes here.
Notes on Seaman’s claim in his response to Lott regarding photos of envelopes: “They were permitted to take photocopies of the affirmation envelopes. Based on precedent set by the Secretary of State’s voter database, which omits signatures, we agreed not to include the signature block in any photocopies. They opted not to make any copies.” But Rhoades’ October 30th letter informing Seaman of their desire to do an audit after the election requested “access to all signed ballot envelops for Missoula County for inspection, counting, and photographing.” In addition, RCI reviewed a copy of the audit agreement that Seaman required Rhoades agree to. It clearly states: “Reviewers will be able to inspect all areas of the envelope, but may not take video, photos, or photocopies of any of the signature portions of an envelope.” One of the auditors, Lyn Hellegaard, requested permission to take pictures during the recount and she says that the Missoula County Elections staff and Seaman told her, “you can’t take pictures of this.” Lisa Melina Pyron was also at the same table counting envelopes as Hellegaard, and she confirms the conversation.
After talking to reporters, it is clear that Bradley Seaman is saying that the people who did the count didn’t have the proper training and that they made mistakes. There are several points to be made here.
— This is pretty simple counting procedure. Most would simply put down a hashtag mark for each envelope that they counted. It wasn’t a question of people losing track of their count when they would get to a high number of envelopes.
— The staff from the County Election Office were there and monitored what was occurring. Seaman was there the whole time. He watched the entire process. He had no suggestions or comments that there was something being done wrong.
— On January 4th after the count was completed, Bradley Seaman announced to the people who had done the recount: “we are looking for election officials, and I hope that you apply.”
— They followed the procedures that were laid out. They set up tables. The counters followed their lead. If there were mistakes because of the methods being used, it was methods that they suggested.
UPDATE 2: The Missoula Current has a letter from the Missoula County Board of Commissioners, April 1, 2021. The response to this piece will soon also be published there.