BILLINGS — Alleging widespread voting machine errors and other Election Day problems, Republican Sandy Welch requested a manual vote recount Monday in the race she narrowly lost for Montana schools superintendent.
Official results had Democrat Denise Juneau leading Welch by 2,231 votes out of more than 468,000 cast in the Nov. 6 election.
An elections expert said Monday that slim margin is likely too large for Welch to overcome.
But Welch, a Martin City education consultant, said voting glitches in Lewis and Clark, Yellowstone, Beaverhead, Missoula and other counties were widespread enough that she can make up the difference and prevail on a recount.
“There were some pretty significant problems,” she said. “We are aware of instances where there were significant errors made in counting ballots and this is the best process to confirm this.”
She said those issues compelled her to apply for the recount through state District Court in Flathead County rather than through the Secretary of State’s office as had been expected.
Welch added that there was no evidence of fraud or other foul play: “It just seems more along the lines of error, and it’s because of the number of different errors that we think they can accumulate to make this a win for us,” she said.
But elections expert Rob Richie said Monday that Welch will be fighting long odds in her bid to become Montana’s next superintendent of public instruction.
Richie, with the Maryland-based election research and reform group FairVote, said he analyzed 18 statewide recounts in the U.S. over the past decade. Those recounts on average shifted the vote less than .03 percent, or by just a few hundred votes, he said.
By contrast, Welch lost by .48 percent. That’s more than 17 times the average shift found by FairVote.
Richie said “it would be extraordinarily unlikely” for a recount to change the outcome.
“There’s been no statewide recount that’s resulted in a margin that’s remotely near this margin,” he said. “Unless there’s fraud — a real distortion from someone cheating — it probably won’t be there.”
A spokeswoman for Juneau said Monday the Democrat’s campaign was organizing poll watchers to oversee the recount at the county level and make sure the process goes smoothly.
State District judge Stewart Stadler scheduled a Friday hearing in Kalispell to determine the sufficiency of Welch’s application. Montana law gives candidates the right to request a recount if their margin of victory is one-half of 1 percent or less.
The recount had been tentatively scheduled to begin Tuesday, said Terri McCoy, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Linda McCulloch. The timing now will depend on what action Stadler takes.
Welch’s campaign had previously said she hopes to make up ground on Juneau in counties such as Yellowstone, where a surge of last-minute voters led to long lines and problems with election machines meant it took four days to tally the vote.
Monday’s recount application included additional allegations that some votes in Missoula County may have been counted twice and that Lewis and Clark’s election was marred by election software errors.
Welch claimed election judges in Fergus, Beaverhead, Missoula and Silver Bow counties modified ballots with markers or stickers to correct voter errors and so that scanning machines could read them. And she said Glacier and Cascade counties gave some voters invalid ballots.
McCoy declined comment on Welch’s claims of voting problems, saying she first would have to see documentation of the alleged errors.
Richie said voting machine errors typically don’t discriminate between candidates, meaning any votes Welch might have lost would have been cancelled out by lost votes for Juneau.
He added that regardless of the outcome, the recount could serve a public service, by either confirming the integrity of Montana’s election system or revealing its flaws.
Under state law, Welch will have to post a bond to cover the costs for Montana’s 56 counties to review the almost half-million ballots that were cast in statewide races.
The recount will cost the counties an estimated $115,000. Adding in attorney fees and other expenses, Welch said the total cost to her campaign would top $200,000.
The Secretary of State’s office previously said those costs were not reimbursable even if the outcome were reversed. By going through the courts, Welch now has a chance to reclaim the recount costs if she prevails, she said.
The Republican National Committee has committed to picking up $100,000 of that amount and private donors are being asked to cover the remainder, she said.
The RNC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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