How Lincoln County’s ‘Big Lie’ Upended an Election Department

All three election officials in the northwest Montana county have resigned in frustration, joining the national ranks of beleaguered administrators quitting their jobs amid baseless claims of voter fraud from county leaders and their constituents

By Tristan Scott
Illustration by Dwayne Harris | Flathead Beacon

On the morning of June 8, 2022, all eyes were on the Lincoln County Elections Department as the primary race for Montana’s western congressional district hung in the balance.

A printing error by the company supplying the rural northwest Montana county with its absentee ballots had rendered them unacceptable by machine tabulators a day earlier, stalling results and holding in limbo a crowded five-way GOP contest for Montana’s new western congressional district. Republican Ryan Zinke, of Whitefish, clung to a narrow 1,064-vote lead over his nearest contender, Kalispell’s Al Olszewski, and as the only county in Montana not yet reporting results, the federal race hinged on Lincoln County’s votes.

In the county seat of Libby, the election department’s three staff members — Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson, Election Administrator Paula Buff and Election Assistant Amanda Eckart — were preparing to conduct a hand-count that would span three days as they painstakingly tallied 4,300 ballots from voters scattered across a sprawling rural county that blots out Montana’s northwestern corner. With 15,205 registered voters, the county spans three legislative districts, a dozen voting precincts and requires about two hours of windshield time to drive across.

When the vote tallies finally tipped the race in Zinke’s favor three days after the polls closed, it cleared a path for the former Interior secretary to win November’s general election and secure a seat in Congress. According to Zinke’s campaign staff who anxiously observed the hand-count from a cordoned-off public-viewing area, the election officials and the volunteers enlisted to conduct the closely scrutinized procedure were consummate professionals.

“I was there for three days,” Heather Swift, the campaign director for Zinke, said. “We observed the hand-count of the ballots in June and were very impressed with the orderly and transparent process implemented. Everything was up to best practices and by the book. They were dealing with an unexpected anomaly in a nationally watched election and performed to a tee.”

An exterior view of the Lincoln County Courthouse where the Clerk and Recorder’s Office is located. Tristan Scott | Flathead Beacon

For his part, Olszewski says he didn’t observe the hand-count because he received personal assurances that the process was above board from his old Republican legislative colleague, Gerald “Jerry” Bennett, who served as a Lincoln County commissioner from 2018 to 2022 following an eight-year career in the state House of Representatives, and who participated in the hand-count last June.

“I did not send a team to Lincoln County. I trusted the process,” Olszewski said. “And I trusted Jerry Bennett, who told me that the hand-count was going to be done in an open, transparent way with plenty of oversight and lots of redundancy and that is why I trusted the process and the people involved.”

The congressional candidates were not alone in placing a high degree of confidence in Lincoln County’s election department staff, who during the 2022 election cycle were commended by Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen for their participation in the parallel testing of a new statewide election management system. Indeed, at the Montana Association of Counties (MACo) Midwinter Conference in Helena in February, Jacobsen personally acknowledged and thanked 12 counties and their election officials for their participation.

“That included Lincoln County, and the Secretary recognized Paula, Amanda, and Robin, along with the rest of the election officials,” according to Richie Melby, communications director for the Secretary of State. 

With that in mind, it came as a surprise to both congressional campaigns — as well as numerous current and former Republican Party leaders across northwest Montana — when in late March all three Lincoln County election officials quit their jobs in unison amid what they characterized as unfounded allegations from the Lincoln County commissioners, who accused Benson and her staff of having “falsified election documents” and of engaging in “nepotism,” according to meeting minutes, doing so both verbally during public hearings as well as in writing.

According to Benson, who prior to her March 27 resignation had served as Lincoln County’s clerk and recorder for most of a decade and worked in the elections department for more than 20 years, the commissioners’ conduct was unprofessional and unprecedented in her experience. By her accounting, which was corroborated by Buff and Eckart, the election officials have endured accusations of fraud and falsifying documents by commissioners on multiple occasions in the past year. Those tensions came to a head on March 1, 2023, when Joshua Letcher, chairman of the commission, “blindsided” Benson during a public meeting when he accused her of election fraud and suggested her staff be disciplined.

Even if his suspicions had been valid, Benson said, it was inappropriate and uncivil to raise them in a public setting, especially given that Letcher had never addressed those concerns or so much as approached Benson or her staff with a question privately.

“I have worked alongside many commissioners and there has always been mutual respect. There is zero respect or even common courtesy from commissioners to county election employees or myself,” Benson said. “My job has never been political, both on the clerk and recorder side and especially elections. Now, politics is being shoved down my throat.”

The official minutes of the March 1 meeting include an attached document titled “Action Alert!” advertising the commissioners’ meeting and explaining that “we will be discussing the Elections in Lincoln County in 2022.” The attachment is written in the first-person perspective and is presumably written by a small group of constituents who Benson and Buff said have launched a concerted effort to foment distrust in the election department. The memo urges recipients to “please be aware of who you forward this to. You want to share with trustworthy individuals who will keep this information close and not on social media or into the wrong hands where our individuals are put on the defensive.”

From left to right, former Lincoln County Clerk and Recorder Robin Benson, former Election Assistant Amanda Eckart and former Election Administrator Paula Buff, with Roxy the dog pictured in the foreground. Tristan Scott | Flathead Beacon

As of May 16, neither the action memo nor the meeting minutes were available on the commissioners’ website; however, the records were publicly accessible for several weeks and the Beacon obtained downloaded copies and screen shots of them.

None of the Lincoln County commissioners — neither Letcher, Brent Teske nor Jim Hammons — would agree to speak with the Beacon about what led to the election department staff’s resignations or to help assign authorial ownership of the attached documents, or explain how it ended up recorded in the meeting minutes. According to Benson, Commissioner Teske submitted the attachment prior to her resignation.

The action memo explains that a “packet … has been forwarded to the Secretary of State and the Attorney General” and further elaborates on the accusations of fraud against Benson and Buff. According to the document, the accusations center on perceived aberrations in an election-day scheduling spreadsheet as well as a list of election judges and post-election auditors, which had been updated by the election administrator and approved by commissioners. The aberrations were apparently revealed through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

“Were Paula’s actions malicious and lacking integrity?” it states. “Lincoln County must audit ALL elections, top to bottom! At the end of this investigation we must consider whether Paula Buff should be terminated.”

The document continues, presumably addressing the commissioners: “As elected officials, you have been hired by the voters of this county and sworn an oath to uphold the constitution on behalf of the voters. When we, raise questions about an area of the county that you supervise, we expect that you will investigate so you have full understanding of the situation, coach and/or reprimand employees when necessary, and that you will make difficult decisions to separate someone from county employment if it’s determined they have been derelict in their duties to county residents, whether willfully or negligently. I had several concerns about the last election. Processes that were inconsistent with transparency and integrity, and a seemingly flippant attitude about anyone who had reservations on how things had been, or would be handled during elections.”

However, in more than a dozen interviews with current and former elected leaders, county administrators and longtime residents in Lincoln County, the only shared misgivings over election integrity concerned the county’s ability to hire adequate staffing in the wake of the election officials’ ouster.

On May 10, Letcher did respond to an email from the Beacon, but only addressed questions about how the election department’s vacant positions were being filled and whether the county was prepared for the school board elections that occurred earlier this month.

“The office has been partially restaffed and is the process of complete restaffing,” Letcher wrote in the email. “We have been advised by our legal counsel to not comment in regards to the situation until it has been completely resolved.”

Lincoln County Attorney Marcia Boris confirmed that the clerk and recorder position had been filled with the appointment of Corrina Brown, who worked under Benson, but Boris said the position of election administrator and the role of election assistant remained vacant as of May 16.

“I am not directly in the loop, but I did see the posting for election administrator internally,” Borris said. “We post it in-house for 48 hours before posting it publicly, and I don’t know where we are in that process.”

Asked about the resignations and the commissioners’ silence, Borris said her office has “referred the matter to our insurer,” the Montana Association of Counties (MACo) to address any personnel grievances and that she can’t comment on the departures of staff.

“As far as any of that is concerned, I don’t feel comfortable discussing it, both because I don’t feel that I know enough about it and because of the potential for ongoing litigation,” Borris said.

Still, she said in the 15 years she’s worked with Benson, “she has never been anything but professional.”

That refrain — that Benson and her staff excelled at their jobs and were deserving of the widespread respect they’d earned — is why so many Lincoln County political leaders remain puzzled by their mass exodus.

Jerry Bennett, the former county commissioner and longtime Republican lawmaker, said he couldn’t comment on the actions of the sitting commissioners, in part because he hadn’t attended any of the meetings in question. However, Bennett said he was disturbed by the trend in Montana and across the nation of extremist party politics creating a hostile work environment for municipal employees and driving them to resign.

In addition to the resignations in Lincoln County, the clerk and recorder in nearby Sanders County, Nichol Scribner, resigned in February. She told the Sanders County Ledger that she was “sad to be leaving the good people of Sanders County, however, the last year has been extremely stressful as I have ongoing health issues and have endured multiple threats.”

The Beacon tried to contact Scribner by telephone and on social media but was unable to reach her.

“If you look across the state, you’re seeing a lot of election officials stepping away because of just that,” Bennett said. “I think there’s some pretty unfounded accusations out there.”

Given Bennett’s lame-duck status at the time of the primary election, he said there were no conflicts of interest barring him from volunteering with the election department. When Buff, the election administrator, sent out an 11th-hour request for volunteers, he answered the call.

“From my experience, Robin, Paula and Mandy [Amanda] all did a wonderful job. I worked with them intimately during the last election cycle when we had to do the hand-count and we had a lot of people step forward and volunteer. They were running a tight ship,” Bennett said. “Paula, with her background as a paralegal, if she didn’t understand a Montana code, she was at the county attorney’s office asking about it. Everything she did was according to Montana law. She was always in contact with the Secretary of State on election issues and when we had that printing discrepancy with the ballots during the primary, Paula pulled it all together and did an outstanding job. I was down there for many hours. I was in the midst of all of that and they did a fantastic job.”

Rep. Randy Brodehl congratulates Rep. Jerry Bennett, who was named legislator of the year, during the 64th Montana Legislative Session in Helena on April 24, 2015. Beacon file photo

Ironically, the very issue that Lincoln County commissioners have raised as the basis for their accusations of impropriety by election officials — the assurance of a safe and secure election — has had the consequence of depleting the election department of its experienced administrators, leaving the office empty but for an interim clerk and recorder elected by appointment in the wake of Benson’s departure.

“We are concerned what impact this mass resignation will have on the county’s ability to run elections,” Swift, who now serves as Zinke’s chief of staff, said.

For Benson, whose resignation amounts to an early retirement that allowed her to finally adopt a dog, a rescue she named Roxy, the real inequity was dealt to her staff, who have had to file for unemployment (Paula) or accept steep pay cuts by taking jobs in other county departments (Amanda). Moreover, she said it’s deterring intelligent and talented prospective employees from seeking jobs in public service.

“Election staff are fearful of attending commissioner meetings, and rightfully so — they can no longer do their jobs,” Benson wrote in her resignation letter. “There is zero support from the commissioners. Both Paula Buff and Amanda Eckart are leaving their positions under severe distress and anxiety. I cannot convey the absolute loss this is to the county and the electors of Lincoln County.”

In her 20 years with Lincoln County, she said she’s never experienced any conflict with county leaders — or, for that matter, any members of the Republican Party with which she has historically aligned herself. But in recent years, she’s experienced escalating tensions, and says the sitting commissioners have seized on constituents’ propensity to recite national news narratives about election fraud, much of it perpetuated by former President Donald Trump.

For example, she said the election department has become inundated with Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in the past two years, with a fringe group of Lincoln County residents requesting copies of voter rolls, election judge rosters, emails between election department staff, and the names of post-election audit committee members, which Letcher told Benson he found to be “too liberal.”

Benson described Lincoln County as overwhelmingly conservative, and she doesn’t see how the rhetoric could pay off as a political strategy.

“Lincoln County is a Republican-dominant county,” she said. “It saw a red wave last election cycle. There are some independents and some Democrats, but all of the elected seats have gone Republican. Why would the Republican commissioners want to change anything about that in Lincoln County?”

Downtown Libby. Beacon file photo

But with Trump still repeating the false claim that he won the 2020 election, scores of his supporters have seized on conspiracy theories and joined the chorus of prominent right-wing media figures spreading disinformation about election security. Benson said officials tasked with running elections, even in deeply Republican areas that overwhelmingly voted for Trump in 2020, have been confronted with vitriol and threats from people persuaded by the baseless accusations of fraud.

Meanwhile, they have also been at the center of Republican efforts to crack down on voting by limiting mail-in elections, casting aspersions about ballot tabulation machines while calling for county-wide post-election audits and blanket hand-counts.

“Do you have any idea how long that would take? How many people would need to be trained? How much insecurity it would introduce into the system because it increases the chance of human error?” Benson said. “It’s just mind boggling.”

Prior to Benson’s hiring of Buff in 2021, the previous two election administrators had also resigned amid what Benson described as mounting political pressure. Citing personal reasons, former election administrator Chris Nelson submitted his resignation letter on Nov. 9, 2020, less than a week after the general election. Benson appointed Nelson at the end of August 2020 after Leigh Riggleman, who served as the former election administrator for two decades, stepped down after expressing frustration over the county commissioners’ decision not to accept her recommendation, per Covid-19 guidelines, for an all-mail election to ensure the health of election judges. After her resignation, the commissioners shifted course and adopted an all-mail ballot process.

The Beacon attempted to reach Nelson and Riggleman by phone, email and social media channels but was unable to make contact with them.

According to former Lincoln County Commissioner Mark Peck, who served on the board of commissioners during the resignations of both former election administrators, he recalls both Nelson and Riggleman “getting a little frustrated during Covid.” He said he knows and respects the current commissioners, as well as Benson and her staff, but can’t comment on the developments that led to their resignations because he doesn’t have firsthand knowledge of what occurred.

“But there’s no question that when you have an elected official like Robin who’s been elected multiple times, both at the city level and at the county level where she was in her third term as clerk and recorder, there’s no question that some anomaly occurred,” Peck said. “There’s something there, there. It doesn’t take a Ph.D in political science to figure that out.”

Linda Gerard, secretary of the Lincoln County Republican Club, which is distinct from the Lincoln County Republican Central Committee and the Republican Women of Lincoln County, said her relationship with Benson dates back more than two decades, to “before she was even in office.” Gerard has served as a chief election judge in her precinct as well as a member of the post-election audit committee, and said Benson and her staff were always “organized and transparent.”

“I never saw anything out of the ordinary or nefarious going on in any way,” Gerard said. “I don’t think we have a problem in our county. But now I am very concerned about what is going to happen in the future because I don’t know the people taking charge. I am going to miss the experience that these ladies have.”

Gerard continued: “I always felt very confident that our county’s elections were conducted fairly and honestly. I have complete faith in our election system at the county level and I was upset when I heard those ladies were resigning. I didn’t really understand why until I read Robin’s resignation letter. That seemed just pathetic to me. I don’t understand why our county commissioners didn’t approach them and discuss it with them before they started having these meetings without any representation. Were they really serious that they thought there was fraud in Lincoln County? I just don’t understand why Republicans eat their own.”

Kristin Smith, a member of the Libby City Council and the owner of Cabinet Mountain Brewing Company, says she served on the post-election audit committee and has volunteered as an election judge in the past. Describing her politics as shaded in “purplish blue,” Smith said the developments that led to the resignations were “just unbelievably confounding and sad.”

“This is a small-town community with an election department that has just been lauded by the Secretary of State who is a Republican and you’re going to accuse them of fraud? Seriously? I don’t know why the commissioners felt they had to jump on this dumb bandwagon about election fraud when Republicans swept the entire county.”

Rep. Mike Cuffe addresses members of the House during the 64th Montana Legislative Session in Helena on April 23, 2015. Beacon file photo

Sen. Mike Cuffe, a longtime Republican legislator from Eureka, said he agrees with the commissioners that it’s important to rebuild confidence in election systems after it was so badly shaken in 2020. To that end, he carried legislation that he called “election-integrity bills” during the 2023 session.

“But that wasn’t to suggest there’s a problem, it was to verify there was no problem and to give people more faith and trust in the process,” Cuffe said. “I don’t feel that there has been any fraudulent activity and none of the bills I have carried would suggest that. I don’t think there’s fraud and I’ve been an election watcher in Lincoln County since 1972. I know Robin Benson and no one has ever accused her of fraud, at least no one with any credibility. I am disappointed this happened, I’m disappointed that these folks reached that level of frustration, but hopefully we are over the hump and we can continue to talk about this because we need to have confidence in our elections.”

After spending the past two decades of her career trying to instill faith in Lincoln County’s elections, Benson said she’s “done trying to change people’s minds.”

“People believe what they want to believe. You can give them tours of your equipment and be transparent about your process, but they believe what they want,” Benson said. “These are the same people saying they want all elections to be hand counted because the tabulators might be hacked. We’ve been using the same tabulators in Montana for 36 years. They have no modem, no internet access, they can’t go to Russia or China. Our machines can’t be hacked.”

“There simply is no justifying their actions,” Benson continued, referring to the commissioners. “Paula and Amanda have worked tirelessly and diligently for the county and all electors in Lincoln County and have run safe and secure elections. The hostility shown to Paula and Amanda, of course, is all under the guise of ‘election integrity.’”

“Well,” she said, “Lincoln County just lost a whole lot of integrity because of this big lie.”