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Statewide voter-database conversion may be delayed

Local election official says new system not ready
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Posted at 4:45 PM, Dec 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-16 20:23:46-05

HELENA — Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen told lawmakers Thursday she won’t launch a new, statewide voter database unless it’s ready – and, at the same meeting, a county election official involved with testing the new system said it’s not ready.

“I think we can say that we’re in agreement that it’s going to be a fantastic program when it is ready,” said Cascade County Administrator Rina Fontana Moore. “But, right now, as far as the election administrators are concerned, it is not ready.”

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Cascade County Election Administrator Rina Fontana Moore.

The final call on whether to “go live” with the new system will be made Monday, after consulting with secretary of state staff, county officials and the company developing the system, said project manager Stuart Fuller.

But, as he and others who spoke at the State Administration and Veteran Affairs Interim Committee made clear, they won’t give the go-ahead unless they’re sure it will work.

“We want to make sure, absolutely, that it is working correctly – that we’re issuing ballots correctly, we’re able to return ballots, we’re able to manage the election process through this system,” said Fuller, the election and voter-services manager for the secretary of state.

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Stuart Fuller, election and voter-services manager for the Montana secretary of state.

Moore and another county election administrator appeared before the same panel a month ago, saying they were concerned that Jacobsen, the state’s top election official, might go forward with the new system for the 2022 election despite their misgivings.

But on Thursday, Jacobsen, Fuller and county election officials said they’re on the same page, when it comes to converting to the new system.

“We can all agree that our common goal is to modernize and secure our elections, and this system is the best way to do that,” Jacobsen said. “If the criteria is met, the system will go live. And if the criteria is not met, the system will not go live … We have unity with our election officials going forward.”

Fuller said if the new system, known as ElectMT, is delayed, the state will use the old database, Montana Votes, for the 2022 election, and continue working to fine-tune ElectMT.

Last month, Moore and Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg told the committee that ElectMT hadn’t been tested in a live election – and that it should be, before the old software system is abandoned.

Moore also said she thinks the “parallel test” couldn’t be held until 2023, because it would be too difficult to run one during a busy election year like 2022.

Fuller, however, said Thursday it’s possible that a parallel test could be conducted next year, perhaps in a local school election.

The state has been using a statewide voter-registration database for 15 years, under Montana Votes. Jacobsen’s predecessor, Corey Stapleton, decided to buy a new system several years ago.

The voter database is used by all 56 county election offices in preparing and issuing absentee ballots, making sure voters aren’t registered in more than one location, checking signatures on mailed ballots and validating signatures on initiative petitions. It’s a key element for election security.

Stapleton’s office was working on the conversion to ElectMT in 2020 and Jacobsen – his chief deputy before winning election to the job and taking office in 2021 -- had planned to have the system ready for the 2022 elections, her office said.

But county election officials working on the plan said that the new system still had too many bugs that had not been worked out, delaying a parallel test this year.