In an interview last month with Missoula radio station KGVO’s “Talk Back” program, Attorney General Austin Knudsen implied that local election officials have “stonewalled” state investigations into alleged voter misconduct.
No available evidence supports the existence of any state-level investigation into voter misconduct in Montana during Knudsen’s tenure as attorney general, which began in January 2021. The attorney general’s office has refused weeks’ worth of attempts by Montana Free Press to confirm the existence of such an investigation or to clarify Knudsen’s remarks.
‘STONEWALLED’ IN ELECTION INTEGRITY
During the KGVO interview, Knudsen fielded a caller’s question about the number of “false voting” cases that have occurred in Montana — apparently referring to incidents of voter fraud. Knudsen responded that election-related allegations “primarily don’t come through the state Department of Justice,” which Knudsen leads, but are typically reported to the secretary of state and prosecuted by county attorneys.
Knudsen went on to allege a “problem” in Montana’s election system, saying that local election administrators are often “not willing to provide some of that information” about election complaints to state officials. He did not specify which state officials he was referencing.
“Very often we have allegations of those cases and then we get stonewalled by the local election administrator,” Knudsen continued. “And I’m going to point right there in Missoula County that they’re one of the ones we get the most cases reported, allegations reported. And then when an investigation is kicked off, the state ends up just getting absolutely stonewalled by the local election administrator.”
No state investigation into local election-related allegations, or conflict between state and local election administrators, has previously been reported, documented, or otherwise referenced in the public record. Knudsen’s office did not respond to or acknowledge receipt of four emails from MTFP requesting information about state-level investigations into election allegations in Missoula County. A fifth email request last week seeking confirmation that the office had received MTFP’s requests and clarification of Knudsen’s comments elicited the following response, in full, from Department of Justice Deputy Communications Director Emilee Cantrell:
“Got it. Looking into it is not something we have time to do for you.”
An email to statewide elections administrator and Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office inquiring about any such investigation also went unanswered. In the past, Jacobsen and her office have declined to directly address critiques of Montana’s election security, routinely responding to press questions with statements expressing Jacobsen’s commitment to making the state’s elections “the best in the nation.” When allegations of misconduct surfaced in Missoula County in 2021, Jacobsen issued an “open letter” proclaiming that Montana “already sets the standard across the country” and vowing to “strive to make the best even better.”
Commissioner of Political Practices Chris Gallus, whose office is the primary agency that deals with election-related complaints at the state level, said he is “not familiar” with such an investigation during his tenure, which began in January. His predecessor, Jeff Mangan, said he too is unaware of the attorney general’s office investigating any election complaints in Missoula. Vera Pederson, president of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders and Election Administrators, said she also is unaware of any state investigation.
“The members of our association are always willing to cooperate with our local county attorney or state attorney regarding any election integrity concerns,” Pederson added.
Missoula County Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman told MTFP he has no knowledge of any state investigation or any request by the attorney general’s office for information from him or his staff. Seaman reviewed his county email account last month to confirm he hadn’t missed any official state requests.
“I haven’t found anything from the attorney general’s office requesting information on an investigation,” Seaman said. “That’s not the normal flow of how something might go through, so it seems just a little bit out of the norm.”
Gallus inquired with his staff as well and conducted what he described as a “cursory” review of election complaint files maintained by the COPP office. He noted that those files contain information about allegations raised in 11 Montana counties, including Missoula County, most dating from the 2022 election cycle, but some dating as far back as 2017. Most of those cases appear to have been referred to county attorneys and election administrators and resolved at the local level, Gallus said.
Election security has become a polarizing political topic nationwide in the wake of the 2020 election. Former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that his loss was the result of widespread voter fraud continue to fuel misinformation and unsubstantiated allegations challenging nearly every aspect of America’s electoral process. Trump was indicted by a federal grand jury on four felony charges Aug. 1 for his alleged efforts to overturn the 2020 election results — efforts that fueled a second indictment, this one from a grand jury in Georgia, on Aug. 14.
In Montana, a group of conservative activists and state lawmakers called the Montana Election Integrity Project has repeatedly alleged discrepancies in Missoula County’s 2020 election results stemming from its own review — later contested by fellow Republicans — of election materials in January 2021. During a public meeting in Hamilton this June, the group presented Ravalli County officials with what it claimed was evidence of rampant corruption across “Montana’s entire election infrastructure.” Much of the information offered at the meeting has been contested or debunked by political scientists and elected officials throughout the country.
As MTFP previously reported, Knudsen’s office agreed to a Nov. 10, 2021, meeting with nationally prominent election deniers Mike Lindell and Douglas Frank. Knudsen’s office confirmed in December 2021 that the meeting took place, but did not confirm whether Knudsen attended. Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, requested the meeting, and at the time said the goal was to convince Knudsen to join a lawsuit challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election. Knudsen did not.
Concerns about the impacts of election allegations and misinformation on public trust served as the impetus for the 2023 Legislature’s creation of a Joint Select Committee on Election Security. One of the committee’s bills attempted to clarify how Montana polices accusations of electoral misconduct — a duty that typically falls to the commissioner of political practices, the secretary of state and county election officials.
An early draft of House Bill 953 proposed two new full-time positions at the attorney general’s office to investigate and prosecute election-related crimes. That approach was scrapped in favor of a version preserving the COPP office’s leading role, but directing COPP to work with the state Department of Justice. The Montana Association of Clerk & Recorders and Election Administrators appeared as an informational witness on the bill but did not oppose it. HB 953 failed to pass the House in time for Senate review.
In his response to the KGVO caller, Knudsen also referred to a case involving two “Canadian citizens” he said were prosecuted on the Hi-Line for voting illegally. There exists no public record of any such case involving Canadian citizens. However, two citizens of the Philippines were charged last year with misdemeanor deceptive election practices in Phillips County. Shortly after the charges were filed, Jacobsen issued a statement saying the case had been referred to the attorney general for prosecution, but Knudsen’s office later told MTFP the matter was being handled by county officials. The case was vacated in the fall of 2022 and referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
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