Rebecca Connors

Missoula County Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors, center, earlier this year led a tour of election facilities.

The May special election to find Montana’s new congressional representative just keeps coming back into play.

Tuesday, Missoula County Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors told the County Commission about her office’s survey into their handling of rejected ballots.

The survey was done at the request of Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who, according to Connors asked the same of each Montana county elections office. And if the local offices didn’t want to, his office would.

Stapleton’s request for the surveys came after an email exchange between him and Connors that was made public after the commissioners decided to respond. In the emails, Stapleton accused Missoula County of not taking voter fraud seriously and asked “why 91 illegal signatures on mail ballots are once again going to be silently set aside on the shelf of indifference.”

The exchange between Connors and Stapleton “really piqued his interest in how the rejected ballot process worked,” Connors said.

“We’re going to do it, we’re going to do it awesome,” she decided.

Bradley Seaman, Connors’ deputy and Carol Bellin, vice chair of the Elections Advisory Committee led the survey, attempting to track down all 91 people who turned in rejected ballots.

They asked the people what led to the circumstances that led to rejection (signing the wrong envelope, turning a ballot in late, etc.) and how/if the elections office could have helped them turn it in correctly.

Of those ballots, 35 came in after the election, 39 had a mismatched signature and 13 had no signature at all. The remaining four were rejected for voters not having an ID and a voter had died.

“This is nothing new to us,” Seaman said. “This is a process we’ve been following for years.”

Seaman and Bellin’s research found most of the mismatched signatures were due to people in the same household signing the wrong envelope, likely because the name is printed on a different part of the envelope, away from the signing line, Seaman said.

A majority of the voters Seaman and Bellin reached said they heard from the elections office about their ballot and got instructions on how to resolve the issue, but many said they were too busy — or lacked easy access to a computer — to make it happen before the election.

One voter “was irritable and in a hurry” when Seaman and Bellin contacted him.

“He was upset that we did not recognize that the signature was his,” the survey said. “He didn’t want to do anything to resolve it. His suggestion: Find a better way than a signature to verify ballots.”

“Which I do think is coming,” Bellin added.

Another voter was out of the country and asked her mom to fill out the ballot and send it in. “Her mom signed the ballot with her own signature with a note that she was signing ‘for’ her daughter.”

More than a few commented they knew they could fix their ballot, but decided it wasn’t worth the effort after the election ended, even though the office can fix them until one day after the election.

Seaman tracked some data on rejected ballots during the recent city election as well, just for comparison.

After the survey over the special election, he thought their ballot checkers were more cautious and rejected more ballots than they may usually have.

“It was hard on our receiptors when there were the allegations of widespread voter fraud,” Seaman said.

Their staff resolved 90 of 261 total rejected ballots (by determining they were swapped between household members or by re-checking signatures), while another 69 were resolved with the help of voters.

More than 100 ballots were left unresolved, for the same three reasons: mismatched signatures, no signatures or no ID.

“I would hope that the Secretary of State takes note of the level of effort we took to ensure the integrity of our voting process,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said.

Seaman and Bellin told the commissioners their office contacts voters by phone, email and letter to try and resolve the ballot issues.

For the survey, they did all three and knocked on some doors as well, to try and get the highest turnout possible. They ended up talking to about half of the 91 voters with rejected ballots.

“My favorite comment is ‘find better candidates,’ ” Commissioner Cola Rowley said.

“We can’t help with that one,” Connors replied.

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City, County Government Reporter

Government reporter for the Missoulian.