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Election officials worry Secretary of State is rushing new election system

Election officials in Montana are ringing alarm bells that the Secretary of State’s plan to move forward with new election software at the start of 2022 could leave them with a largely untested, unworkable system for next year's federal elections.

Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen is planning to replace a statewide election database system that tracks voter registrations and interacts with nearly all levels of running elections, from updating precincts to printing and accepting ballots, by January 2022. Her predecessor, Corey Stapleton, had previously begun the process of switching from the current system, “Montana Votes,” with a new system known as “electMT.”

But during a meeting of the Legislature’s State Administration and Veterans Affairs Interim Committee last week, the top county election officials from Cascade and Ravalli counties said that months of delays and a missed deadline for a major test during this year’s general elections has created the need to push back that switch-over date. They also indicated Jacobsen's office has been unresponsive to their concerns.

“At some point, it’s going to be a fabulous program, but right now we want to … not be forced to use a program that we have no faith in and we don’t have faith in this system right now because we haven’t been able to test it,” Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Fontana Moore told the committee.

A spokesman for Jacobsen’s office, Richie Melby, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Plettenberg said before changing systems, it's critical to be able to conduct a “parallel test” — using the old system to actually run an election while simultaneously using the new system before officially switching over, to detect any potential discrepancies or remaining bugs in the software. Moore said that Jacobsen's office had assured the state’s clerks and recorders in July that Elect Montana would be ready for that major trial in time for this year’s November elections.

That didn't happen, and instead, Plettenberg said the Secretary of State is inviting election officials to Helena in early December to conduct a mock election on the new system.

The preliminary testing of the new system is done in 15 stages, referred to as “sprints,” which are each scored based on dozens of criteria. Moore said that while election officials aim to achieve at least a 90% score for each of those sprints, the top scores have been barely hitting the 70% mark. Plettenberg added during an interview Wednesday that the software development team still hasn’t finished programming for the final sprint.

Moore suggested that if the new system launches before it’s ready, there could be grave repercussions in next year’s federal elections. Recently most Republican lawmakers signed on to an effort to create a special committee to probe the state’s election security — an effort driven by right-wing legislators and activists who have pushed unsubstantiated theories that the 2020 general election was marred by widespread fraud.

“As an election administrator, and someone that actually runs elections, the last thing I need to do is explain to a voter next year, ‘Oops, there was a bug in the system. Sorry you got issued two ballots,'” Moore said.

While Democrats on the committee expressed alarm about the election officials’ testimony, Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, noted that the interim committee has no ability to intervene in a decision that ultimately rests with Jacobsen.

“If there is an issue here, it must be resolved between the county and the state,” Kary said. “We cannot meddle into it; that is an operating procedure, we deal with laws and regulations and rules. We do not operate departments.”

Sen. Mike Cuffe, a Eureka Republican who worked closely with Jacobsen during the legislative session, echoed those comments and suggested the clerks were bringing forth their complaints at the last minute.

“Although we are an oversight committee, we’re not the boss of the Secretary of State,” Cuffe said.

Moore responded that her group of county election officials have been working with the Secretary of State’s office for two years on the new system, and have more recently tried and failed to bend Jacobsen’s ear on the lingering issues, with little response from her office. In the past month, she said multiple attempts to bring their concerns forward had only elicited a response that Jacobsen is sticking to her plans to kill the current system on Dec. 23. The “electMT” system would go live on Jan. 3.

“This is hard for us. This is hard that no one’s listening to us, and this was an act of desperation today,” Moore told the committee. “We have thought long and hard about taking this final step and we decided that today, to make this public, is the only option that we have if this system doesn’t work and they insist on pushing it on us and making us go live next year. This is the integrity of Montana’s election.”

Plettenberg said Wednesday that the Secretary of State’s office is currently planning to host election administrators for a two-week test of the system, which will wrap up Dec. 17. The interim committee’s next meeting, on Dec. 16, will include an update from election administrators on those efforts to get the new system up to par.

“We’ll just have to see if that alleviates our concerns, but it still leaves our concern that we still won’t be able to do a parallel test for the election,” she said. “We feel this is very rushed.”

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