A certified public accountant whose claims of election shenanigans have been deemed unfounded by a district court judge and a sheriff’s investigator is continuing her relentless campaign against the Missoula County Elections Office.
Patty Lovaas, seeking the Republican nomination for Montana secretary of state, again has called upon the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office for help in her lawsuit against Missoula County. In a letter sent to the sheriff, Lovaas alleges “election discrepancies” and “manipulation of the election” in May 2011.
“Now what’s happened is the county has tampered with evidence in violation of the law,” Lovaas said last week.
Sheriff Carl Ibsen was out of the office, but Missoula County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Johnson said investigators will closely review the allegations for any evidence of criminal misconduct. However, he said an initial review does not show “anything substantial” in the documentation from Lovaas.
Last year, the sheriff’s office investigated a similar complaint by Lovaas and found her claims of election fraud had no merit.
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“I can tell you that’s the expectation this time as well,” Johnson said.
As far as Lovaas is concerned, election outcomes across Montana are manipulated by a “high-tech” scheme that means winners are “decided long before anyone goes to the polls.” She is calling for “checks and balances and quality controls.”
The continued charges and requests for scrutiny, though, come on the cusp of one of the biggest election seasons in recent history for the Missoula County Elections Office. Elections administrator Vickie Zeier said Lovaas’ activities present a “major distraction” for the small elections staff and come at a time the public expects perfection.
“I don’t know if I would use that word (‘disruption’) yet, but I’m worried that could be the case,” Zeier said.
Lovaas said she launched her crusade for clean elections because “people wanted me to get involved in it” after her involvement in the 2008 election. The Missoula accountant was an unsuccessful Republican candidate in the U.S. Senate primary; with six candidates in the race, she lost to dark horse Bob Kelleher but alleges voters were disenfranchised.
She would not specify who requested she take on the Missoula County Elections Office, but Lovaas said she herself is paying for the lawsuits and related activity. Earlier this year, she asked to scrutinize election documents.
“This controversy can only be justly adjudicated by inspection of the ballots, and elector registrations, the undeliverable ballots and the voter envelopes,” Lovaas wrote.
In response, the county went to court requesting direction from a judge on how to balance the “right of public access,” “integrity of elections,” and “privacy rights of Missoula’s registered voters.” Voter registration cards can include partial Social Security numbers, for instance, although Lovaas later amended that request.
In March, Judge Ed McLean ruled that Lovaas’ request to see “voter envelopes” was vague and also that the ballots from the May 2011 election will remain sealed: “Allowing the Plaintiff and her group of volunteers to open and inspect the sealed ballots is not going to happen under any foreseeable circumstances.”
For one thing, she never requested a recount, and such requests must take place within five days of the canvass, wrote the judge.
But Lovaas did have a chance to inspect the “affirmation envelopes,” and she found shortcomings. For one thing, some voter envelopes were removed from the collection, so last week, Lovaas went back to Missoula County District Court.
In another motion, she requested the court “immediately secure all records and charge defendants for spoliation of evidence,” or illegally tampering with evidence. Her lawsuit is against Missoula County through the Board of County Commissioners and Clerk and Recorder Zeier, and the state of Montana through Secretary of State Linda McCulloch.
Lovaas makes numerous charges of fraudulent activity, and taken on the whole, her allegation of election manipulation sounds grave. So far, though, her claims remain unproven.
For one thing, the missing “affirmation envelopes” aren’t actually missing, said Zeier, who produced the records. When voters make requests on those envelopes for changes – a name change or becoming a permanent absentee voter, say – elections officials update the elections database, and then they set those envelopes aside and store them separately as part of a paper trail.
Earlier, Lovaas discovered that a printout of the May 2011 elections records showed triplicate voting entries in some precincts. She alleged “high-tech” computer manipulation of the elections outcome, and she requested a criminal investigation.
Zeier, though, demonstrated a computer glitch that caused the multiple entries. Later, the sheriff’s office determined Lovaas’ claims had no merit, and the Missoula County attorney ruled “absolutely no wrongdoing” on the part of Zeier and her staff.
Lovaas, though, is continuing her challenges and charges of “legal malpractice,” and she isn’t new to the courtroom. She has sued the state and been called a “vexatious litigant,” a term she previously welcomed as a badge of persistence.
“This is my contribution to society because if we don’t get this fixed, we don’t have a republic,” Lovaas said. “And right now, based on what I know and my knowledge, you know, it really doesn’t matter what you vote.”
The battle being fought looks to have high stakes. If Lovaas is right, property tax increases levied as a result of the 2011 schools election should never have been implemented, for one thing. And more importantly, it would mean election tampering runs rampant in Montana, and the manipulators are highly sophisticated and prepared to outmaneuver investigators.
The civil lawsuit is ongoing, but either way, the court wrangling comes at a time the elections office faces one of the biggest election seasons in recent history. County spokeswoman Anne Hughes said people are free and encouraged to make requests of the county, but she also asked them to take the time to understand the processes around a request.
“We believe all citizens have a right and responsibility to understand the process and be curious about it, and that they understand the process before claiming that it’s flawed,” Hughes said.
She invited any member of the public who has questions to contact the county. The elections office phone is 258-4751.
In an interview, Zeier referred multiple times to the activity around Lovaas’ demands as “a distraction” or “a major distraction” at a time her office can little afford one. With 3.5 employees, the office is in the midst of handling two elections within 30 days of each other, she said.
“Elections are expected to be perfect, but we are human beings,” Zeier said. “We are doing our very best at making everything right, and the more distracted you get, the harder that becomes.”
To staff Lovaas’ review of the affirmation envelopes, the county hired six people for seven hours. And Zeier said she wants to be open to public requests, but it’s been difficult to respond to Lovaas because she doesn’t communicate with Zeier directly about what she wants and doesn’t ask questions.
Instead of asking why some “affirmation envelopes” were kept in a separate file, for instance, Lovaas determined county officials had “tampered with evidence.” Zeier said she would like to be asked about her processes instead. Ballots, for instance, are sealed and have been since the election.
“I don’t have a problem with somebody scrutinizing the election,” Zeier said. “I believe that’s a good thing, to be honest.”
Such scrutiny has improved elections, too, she said. Because of privacy concerns from the public, the county now has envelopes with a flap that hides their signatures, for instance. And because voters weren’t sure their mailed ballots were arriving at the county, they can now track their mailings online.
Zeier credits citizens for bringing that concern to her attention: “I actually like that kind of scrutiny because how do I fix it? How do I make it better?”
Some citizens also got two ballots in an earlier election, although the computer system didn’t allow them to vote twice. Now, Zeier has a different system to number envelopes so that doesn’t happen again.
Sheriff’s spokesman Johnson said his office will likely have a response in the middle of next week to Lovaas’ letter and request to secure evidence. She wants a judge to find the county “in contempt of court.”
“Please consult with the Court on the proper procedure to secure the records – the ballot envelopes and ballots; including the opened envelopes and the undeliverable envelopes,” Lovaas wrote in the letter to the sheriff. “Based on the actions of the County I believe this step to secure the evidence is imperative, despite the County being notified by spoliation letter that the documents pertaining to the election must be secured in August 2011.”