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Back in August, I wrote a blog post (“Big Sky Beef Season”) detailing how Montana SoS Corey Stapleton’s claims of “voter fraud” in the May 25 special Congressional election had generated tension with local election officials across the state. Now, after a survey of questionable ballots, Stapleton is walking back those claims and pledging to work with locals to reduce “misconduct” involving vote-by-mail ballots. The Great Falls Tribune has more:
Montana does not have issues of coordinated voter fraud, but Secretary of State Corey Stapleton argues there were cases of “voter misconduct” during May’s special election that need to be addressed.
Stapleton met Tuesday with county elections officials to discuss the results of a survey of absentee ballots that were cast but not counted in a May special election.
Stapleton charged in July that more than 360 illegal ballots were cast during a May 25 vote held to elect a U.S. House representative to replace now-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
As is often the case, a closer review revealed that fears of “fraud” were overblown and that something else was at work:
A survey found those were cases of mismatched signatures. Other ballots were missing signatures and some rejected ballots arrived late. Around 383,000 votes were cast statewide.
Dana Corson, elections director in Stapleton’s office, said in some cases, ballots that were questioned had the right person’s signature, but they signed too quickly or the voter had illnesses or injuries that caused their signatures not to match those on file with the county.
Stapleton said an example of misconduct was a parent signing a ballot for a child away at college.
Many contacted by Secretary of State staff members said they didn’t know it was wrong to sign someone else’s ballot or they were surprised anyone noticed.
At least one case of potential voter fraud was referred to the Lewis and Clark County attorney for consideration of prosecution, said Jeff Mangan, Commissioner of Political Practices.
“The jurisdiction for an election fraud is likely under the Commissioner of Political Practices based on our statues and not under the Secretary of State’s Office,” said Mangan, who attended the meeting.
One hopeful sign is that the SoS and local election officials are looking for ways to work together to reduce the number of questionable ballots – though the locals suggest that, by and large, the system already does what it’s supposed to:
Stapleton plans a series of public service announcements before next June’s primary election to educate voters on casting absentee ballots. Other suggestions included expanding the My Voter Page on the Secretary of State’s website to let voters know how to resolve any problems with their ballots.
Rebecca Connors, the elections administrator in Missoula County, said the survey shows clerks are successful in catching ballots that should not be counted.
“To me, if anything, this survey has shown that the process works. There is a stopgap in the process. We are preventing ballots from being counted that should not be counted on Election Day,” Connors said.
Montana’s May special election was already a source of tension between state and local government, given county officials’ desire to conduct an all-mail vote – which was thwarted by the Legislature, costing localities time, money and effort they didn’t believe they had – and Stapleton’s “fraud” claims threatened to damage that relationship even further. It’ll be interesting to see of the walk back restores that relationship – especially as the next round of elections approaches in 2018. Stay tuned!