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Montana’s most recent election showed a strong system with a few needed improvements, according to Secretary of State Corey Stapleton.

During a two-day visit to Missoula’s county election staff, local business leaders and the Missoulian, Stapleton said he sought ways to best spread federal Help American Vote Act grant funding to upgrade election offices.

“$1.5 million goes really quickly if everyone makes a run at it,” Stapleton said. His goal is to spread the funds effectively between large and small counties through equipment replacements and expansion. But he also is considering using the funds for a new statewide voter registration change.

The current system was installed in 2004. Stapleton said it was vulnerable to hacking, noting that registration systems in Illinois and Arizona reported hacking incidents in 2016. U.S. intelligence agencies accused Russian hackers affiliated with Russian military intelligence of the incursions. However, the Department of Homeland Security has stated no votes were changed in any of the incidents.

The whole state would benefit from an upgrade to the voter registration system, Stapleton said. But he added county election clerks preferred local improvements.

Stapleton said there was a huge drop in unresolved mis-matched signatures on mail ballots between 2017 and 2018. The office had to work through 363 mis-signed forms in the 2017 special election. After an agreement with the Commissioner of Political Practices Office, Stapleton said that number was down to about 20 in the 2018 general election. Although many in his staff assumed the main problem would be family members improperly signing for one another, Stapleton said the bigger concern was people returning mail ballots delivered to a previous resident of the address.

His office has not settled on a plan to enforce the 2018 Legislative Referendum 129, which imposes stricter requirements on who can collect or turn in a ballot request or ballot. The referendum requires anyone collecting a ballot for another to sign a registry and provide contact information about themselves and each voter they assist, limiting a collector to no more than six ballots.

Stapleton said he was considering placing ballot drop-off boxes in places that have regular video surveillance as a possible way of tracking potential abuses, but had no firm direction beyond that.

“In North Carolina, they found people were harvesting tons of ballots and throwing things out that they didn’t want,” Stapleton said. “They just decertified an election there.”

The federal House race between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready in North Carolina was 905 votes in favor of Harris when the state’s election board decided to investigate claims that a Republican operative may have improperly handled absentee mail ballots there. The final election result remains on hold.

While Montana state election clerks have supported a change allowing them to start counting mail and absentee ballots before election day, Stapleton said he was struggling with the proposal. He worried clerks might leak results early in ways that might sway an election. He also opposed allowing election-day voter registration, saying closing registration the Friday before a Tuesday election would allow clerks uninterrupted time to prepare for the actual voting.

Shifting topics to his decision to run for governor in 2020, Stapleton said he was not concerned about using his state email account and Secretary of State letterhead to announce his plans to run. The Montana Democratic Party filed a complaint with the Commissioner of Political Practices accusing Stapleton of improperly using state resources for political purposes. Stapleton said he hadn’t read the complaint but argued that as an elected political officer, he was allowed to make such announcements.

“This is a political office,” Stapleton said. “Making a political statement doesn’t mean you’re campaigning.”

Stapleton also said he was concerned “we don’t follow constitutional government,” which resulted in more reliance on making change through the court system instead of amending the state constitution. As an example, he said the state’s constitutional right to a clean and healthful environment “has been used to shut down industry.”

Stapleton said his goal as a Land Board member was to raise the revenue from state school trust lands from the current 5 percent to 20 or 30 percent.

“We do lots of things that don’t generate revenue from things like coal, oil, gas and timber,” Stapleton said. “I want to see us get away from that. I’m uncomfortable with state government purchasing private farms and ranches. It disrupts real estate markets.”

He also said of a recent disagreement between four Republican members of the State Land Board with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock over approval of a conservation easement that the board had been too accommodating to public land acquisitions. The State Supreme Court sided with Bullock 6-1 in that matter.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.