Corey Stapleton

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton testified against a vote-by-mail law in March, telling the Montana House Judiciary Committee that it would open up the state to lawsuits and that the existing election system works well.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

It’s unfortunate that Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has turned election integrity into such a political football, because he actually has some valid concerns.

But it’s difficult to evaluate those concerns on their own merits when Stapleton, a Republican, seems determined to single out Democratic-leaning Missoula County for criticism, then complain about being personally attacked when county elections officials defend their work.

Enough of that nonsense. Stapleton, who has been on the job for only six months, needs to start working with county elections officials in Missoula and elsewhere in Montana to better understand the systems in place to ensure the integrity of our elections, then follow up by making sure they have the resources in place to do their jobs to the best of their ability. In doing so, he will undoubtedly gain a better understanding of that process that will lead to more effective – and welcome – suggestions for improvements.

What Stapleton has done instead is make sweeping election reforms a priority for his office and then focus on a single case in Missoula County to justify them.

In the special election held May 25, Missoula County voters turned in approximately 47,000 ballots, and of these, elections administrators rejected a total of 91 ballots.  However, one ballot was counted when it should have been rejected, and this error was discovered only after a woman called the elections center to find out why her ballot was listed as cast when she had never even received it.

Elections officials looked into the matter, found the problem ballot and voided it, then issued the woman a new ballot. It appeared the miscounted ballot had been signed by someone else who likely received it in error and returned it without looking too closely at the name on the envelope.

Elections administrators duly reported the incident to the Missoula Police Department and the Secretary of State’s Office. In response, Stapleton not only says that more should be done to determine without a doubt that the ballot in question wasn’t a case of criminal fraud, he asserts that Missoula County elections is plagued by a “culture of permissiveness.”

Missoula County elections are conducted exactly the same way as elections in every other Montana County. Yet Yellowstone County, for instance, which has many more rejected ballots than Missoula County (still less than 1 percent of total returned ballots), is not being singled out by the secretary of state.

Could it be because Stapleton is a Republican and wants to find voter fraud in predominantly Democratic counties? Or perhaps a deliberate attempt to undermine mail-in elections, which some Montana Republicans believe favor Democratic candidates?

This assumption was seen most recently in Montana in a letter from the chair of the Montana Republican Party, a state legislator from Billings. Rep. Jeff Essmann wrote to fellow Republicans before the May 25 special elections that mail ballots give Democrats an “inherent advantage.” The letter was aimed at drumming up support for a bill that would have barred counties from holding the recent special election by mail ballot – and cost the state an estimated $750,000 in the process. It was defeated in the Legislature, and Republican Greg Gianforte went on to win the U.S. House seat.

Stapleton was among the bill’s supporters.

“Election integrity” has been a hot topic on the national stage, owing in large part to President Trump’s assertion, without a shred of evidence to support it, that “millions” of votes were fraudulently cast in the most recent presidential election and his formation of a federal panel to investigate elections. Stapleton, to his credit, is among the state officials refusing to hand over private voter information to federal investigators.

What has received less attention are quieter efforts in other states to institute election reforms ostensibly aimed at preventing voter fraud. What studies have shown such efforts actually do, however, is disenfranchise legitimate voters and suppress voter turnout.

Now here is Stapleton calling for a closer review of rejected ballots. Be warned, Montana voters: forget to sign your ballot, or turn it in late, and Stapleton would see you investigated for criminal fraud.

Stapleton may be trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, but underneath the hyperbole, there is still, in fact, a molehill: one ballot did slip by elections administrators, and the small percentage of ballots rejected in each election did grow this year. 

More than 1,800 ballots were rejected – out of more than 383,000 cast – in the most recent election. That’s less than 0.5 percent of ballots, but still more than the 0.2 percent rejected in the November 2016 election.

There are probably some things that can be done to make this tiny percentage of rejected ballots even tinier, and to convince even the most skeptical Republicans of Montana’s election integrity. Quite reasonably, the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders has asked the state elections chief to make special training on ballot rejection available during their conference next month.

Of course, no system will ever be entirely free from human error, including the “grand experiment” in American government called democracy. We can, however, take steps to reduce error as much as possible, and that means maintaining the utmost transparency and accountability. It may also mean making careful, thoughtful changes from time to time.

Stapleton’s own data shows that the most common reasons for rejected ballots are late return, lack of a signature or a ballot signature that does not match the one on file. There is no evidence whatsoever of intentional, systemic or widespread voter fraud. On the contrary, it appears Montana’s election officials are pretty darn good at catching errors, and actively working on getting better.

Instead of making unfounded allegations, Montana’s secretary of state should do everything in his power to help them better serve the voters of Montana. 

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