Gov. Schweitzer’s Tampering Comments Spark Controversy

Schweitzer jokingly described how he rigged the release of one county’s vote tally on election night 2006, when Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester narrowly beat Republican Conrad Burns, to avoid a recount. Was it a joke?

9-10-08

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said in a July fundraising speech that he tampered with the 2006 election, in which fellow Democrat Jon Tester narrowly beat Conrad Burns for the U.S. Senate.

Specifically, Schweitzer laughingly  described how he rigged the release of one county’s election results with the goal of avoiding a recount and how he prompted reservation cops to run-off Republican poll watchers to keep them from harassing Indian voters.

“You know the governor,” said Sarah Elliott, Schweitzer’s spokeswoman. “He’s an animated storyteller. He loves to tell stories. He was joking about the Tester election, at a time when we were in the shadow of Florida. He meant absolutely no offense. He got going and told stories in his usual animated way. That’s really all there is to it. There wasn’t any attempt to influence” the election or the results.

“He’s just telling a story. He did not tamper. I wouldn’t let him or anyone else,” said Mary McMahon, head of the elections office for Silver Bow County. “I have to take some humor with it, otherwise it would drive you crazy,” she added. “As for the inference, I resent that.”

A spokesman for Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson, whose office oversees elections, said, “I sincerely hope this is not true.”

As of Wednesday morning, no investigation was underway by either the Montana Attorney General or the U.S. Attorney for the state.

The speech, available online, features the governor’s signature storytelling about his grandmother homesteading on the Montana prairie as a 17-year-old illegal immigrant from Ireland.

Then Schweitzer regaled the Trial Lawyer’s Association with how, two years earlier, he had promised to deliver another Democratic U.S. Senator from Montana.

“I’m back to tell you we got it done,” Schweitzer told them. This is what he said: Out-of-state Republican poll watchers intimidate Native Americans at the polls, or, in his words, “there’s liable to be some sons-of bitches… who are going to show up, stand in front of the polling place” and drive away a portion of the voters. So he prompted reservation policemen to threaten the interlopers with indefinite jail time in the agency jails if they didn’t get off the reservation immediately. It worked, he said. “We didn’t lose one Indian vote.”

Then Schweitzer described watching Tester’s lead narrow on the night of the election, as the numbers came in. He wanted to avoid a recount, he said, as most Montana counties are controlled by Republicans, who would have handed the victory to Burns.

So Schweitzer pressured the Butte-Silver Bow election administrator, in not so many words, to stall the release of her county’s results to maintain Tester’s razor-thin lead. He also called the administrator “as nervous as a pregnant nun” at being phoned by the governor.

Secretary of State Brad Johnson’s office fielded no complaints of this kind of tampering at the time of the election, said spokesman Bowen Greenwood. He did field a complaint on Tuesday this week about the governor’s remarks from Tammy Hall of Bozeman, who asked the Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath and the U.S. Attorney General’s office to investigate the governor’s remarks.

The office of Johnson, a Republican, does not have investigative authority.

A spokeswoman for McGrath, a Democrat, Lynn Solomon said the state attorney general’s office, as dictated by state law, doesn’t conduct investigations because of requests from the public.

McMahon, election administrator in Butte, described how human error on election night in 2006 led to some discrepancies between the electronic vote counter and manual counts. McMahon stopped the count, found the error and fixed it. The entire day lawyers from both major parties watched the collection of ballots, the count and her office’s own recount. She did everything by the books and defends the independence and integrity of her office.

“He had absolutely no influence,” she said.

The governor did call, she said, to get the latest numbers. The two never spoke directly. She passed along a message that she would get results to his office when she had correct numbers, and she did, after she delivered the news to the press, she said.

As for the governor’s nun comment, she said, “I resent that.”

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Filed under 2008, Old News Stories and Columns

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