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Three shocking events concerning foreign interference in state and national elections were revealed last week. The Senate Intelligence Committee released a report  detailing “unprecedented” Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election in all 50 states; Robert Mueller testified before two House committees that Russia and other foreign nations were “doing it [election inference] as we sit here, and they expect to do it in the next campaign;” and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell shot down two bills already passed by the House to give states more money to implement election security measures. In the meantime, Montana’s Secretary of State Corey Stapleton wants to launch new election software that Montana’s clerks and recorders say shouldn’t be rolled out until after the 2020 elections.

Given the significance of the indisputable evidence of efforts to interfere in our national and state elections, one might reasonably expect Stapleton to approach the contentious 2020 elections with a high degree of caution and take every possible effort to ensure the highest level of security for Montana’s electorate.

But as revealed in a recent Montana Free Press article, Stapleton has done almost exactly the opposite. First he signed a $2 million exclusive contract with a South Dakota firm for new election software — which has had problems in other states — without going through the standard government process of putting out a request for proposals. Considering it’s taxpayer money Stapleton is spending, one may have thought it would be prudent to consider various proposals for their cost/benefits and operational reviews by election experts. And of course it’s certainly not radical to perhaps have included the people who do the election work in Montana, the clerks and recorders, in the selection process. Then again, Stapleton has already been nailed for inappropriately awarding a no-bid $250,000 contract to a Republican-connected printing firm to re-do the Voter Information Pamphlet he apparently didn’t have time to proofread.

Stapleton’s actions prompted a long letter from the Montana Clerk and Recorder’s and Elections Administrators Association in which the on-the-ground elections officials expressed concerns over the timeline and reliability of the new system and called Stapleton’s intent to implement it before the 2020 election “very worrisome.” To back up their concerns, the association detailed the state’s past experience with new voter systems and concluded they "are not confident that the conversion along with adequate testing and training can occur in time for the 2020 election cycle.”

As noted in a Billings Gazette editorial, when asked about the details Stapleton’s office replied that it “could not comment on the new system because of a request not to speak on the issue by the federal Department of Homeland Security and the Montana National Guard.” But when the Gazette checked, “both the National Guard and the Department of Homeland Security have said neither agency has asked the Secretary of State to remain silent.” In other words, Stapleton’s office lied outright.

It’s well known that President Trump discounted the reports from U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections because he doesn’t want to admit he may have been illegitimately elected with the help of a foreign power. Meanwhile, Stapleton is trying to quickly force a new election system on Montana and Sen. Mitch McConnell kills election security bills calling them a “political benefit” to Democrats.

If anyone is playing politics with election security, it’s seems to be Republicans Trump, McConnell and Stapleton. Given the broad agreement on the severity of the threat to our electoral systems from foreign intervention, Montanans can and should credibly ask “what’s wrong with Corey Stapleton?”

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George Ochenski writes from Helena. His column appears each Monday on the Missoulian's Opinion page. He can be reached by email at oped@missoulian.com.

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