Montana Republicans are using the "F-word" more often these days.
Fraud. As in "election fraud."
Get used to it. We're going to hear a lot more of it, perhaps from both parties, all the way to election day and, maybe, beyond. For now, though, the GOP is the side using it.
On Monday, the executive director for Montana's Republican Party, Jake Eaton, dropped more than 3,400 challenges of registered voters to Missoula's elections office. In other words, Eaton is challenging whether 3,400 Missoula County voters are eligible to cast a ballot in November. (To put it in context, Missoula has about 68,000 active registered voters.) He's also filed challenges in Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow, Hill, Glacier, Deer Lodge and Roosevelt Counties, involving some 6,000 voters in all.
What's the issue? Where registered voters live. The state GOP compared U.S. Postal Service "change of address" requests with county voter lists. And compiled lists of registered voters who reported changes of address to the post office without doing so to the county. What Eaton wants to know is whether those people only had their mailing address changed temporarily (think college student or contract worker who leaves home for a given period of time) or whether they truly have moved their residence. If they have moved, they very well may not be eligible to vote in the county where they are currently registered. In Eaton's worst case scenario, voters might be registered in two places and could vote twice. Or they might simply be allowed to vote on a ballot they have no right to get.
Missoula County had the largest list of "discrepancies" of all 56 counties, so Eaton made sure it was among the first to be tested. The result is that the county elections office must generate more than 3,400 voter notification letters (plus residence affidavits and other information) that must be mailed by next Monday. By the way, that's the same day the county will send out more than 12,000 absentee ballots, begin "late registration" and open up the courthouse polling place for in-person absentee voting. In other words, Eaton's challenges could hardly come at a worse time.
Voters who receive letters will have an opportunity to resolve their residency status by filling out the enclosed affidavit, getting it notarized and then returning it. Residents who have moved within the county and haven't filed a change of address can do so and vote for a final time at their former polling place before officially changing precincts. People who acknowledge that have moved out of the county for good will be removed from the county's voter lists and will have to register in their new location. (There are exceptions, notably for people who already have requested an absentee ballot. I won't go into that here.)
It may be that Eaton's challenges actually point out shortcomings in state election and voter registration databases. I sense, however, there's another point to this exercise--to embarrass Gov. Brian Schweitzer and, presumably, rouse public outrage over the governor's much-discussed remarks about monkeying with the 2006 U.S. Senate election. The governor has said he was joking, but the GOP and its gubernatorial nominee, Roy Brown, are not laughing. Eaton told me the challenge project is a response to Schweitzer's remarks and an effort to make sure every voter in the state is registered according to the law. Sooner or later, however, I expect their message to inconvenienced voters and harried election administrators will be "blame it on Brian."
Eaton isn't the only one talking about possible irregularities in the election process. Republican primary also-ran Patty Lovaas continues to claim that fraud in absentee ballots delivered the GOP Senate primary to Bob Kelleher. So far, she has not filed suit to nullify the vote, but she told me she will. (Her main legal effort of late was a pro se effort to get on the November ballot as an independent Senate candidate. The Secretary of State turned her down; federal judge Sam Haddon of Butte agreed on Tuesday and threw out her petition.) Lovaas says she has evidence to prove her claim; whether that evidence is anecdotal or analytical, how extensive it is, and whether it's been interpreted correctly are questions yet to be answered.
Missoula County elections administrator Vickie Zeier also told her elections advisory committee Wednesday that the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns are calling regularly with questions about polling places, election judges and other aspects of the November vote. She expects unprecedented numbers of poll watchers and election attorneys--of both parties--to be closely monitoring polling places on election day.
And what will they be looking for? The "F-word."