Montana does not have widespread voter fraud in its elections system.
That’s according to Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, now that he’s reviewed data he requested from Montana’s Clerks and Recorders Association.
In June, Stapleton issued a press release saying there was voter fraud during the May special election for Congress. He said that, statewide, more than 360 ballots in that election were cast with mismatched signatures, which he said could signal more widespread voting problems.
Since then, however, Stapleton has limited his use of the phrase “voter fraud.”
Here’s what he said to about half a dozen leaders of the Clerks and Recorders Association at a meeting Tuesday.
“We know. I know, you know, that we can do better,” Stapleton said.
The county elections officials generally agree with Stapleton’s concerns that misconduct and mistakes by voters warrant reflection on the 1800 ballots they flagged with issues during the May special election.
They’re working with Stapleton to come up with a way to reduce the number of mall-in ballots that are sent in too late, cast without signatures, or sent in with a signature that doesn't match with the one on record for that voter. In these cases, ballots are flagged by local officials and if not corrected, those votes aren’t counted.
Ahead of Tuesday's meeting to study the issue, Stapleton told MTPR that election officials needed to know more about these ballots.
“When we have people who knowingly and intently, in the May 25, 2017 election there are a few dozen who did, sign someone else ballot, open someone else's mail, mail in someone else ballot, or try to vote twice in the same election, then I’m going to call it what it is,” he said.
He has shifted his language over the course of the last few months, from calling these kinds of situations voter fraud, to using the milder word “misconduct.”
In August, Stapleton called for a study of suspect ballots. At the time he said he was uncomfortable running elections with the current slack in the system.
County election officials countered by saying the Secretary of State did not know enough about the system he wanted to improve. And they vented their frustration to Stapleton at their August Meeting.
On Tuesday, the Mail-Ballot Improvement Working Group searched for improvements to the state’s election system as well as ways to mend to the working relationship between the Secretary of State and county election officials.
Ruth Baker, President of the Montana Clerks and Recorders Association, said that relationship is improving.
Both sides agree that overall Montana’s election system is healthy. Both sides also agree that there’s some room for improvement and they can’t make much progress without the others help.
“We’re on a more positive place than we were on August,” Baker said.
Baker has been among the county election officials critical of how Stapleton characterized his concerns about fraud and slack within the state’s election system.
“We’ve come a long way. Everybody needs to see that positive that is going on. And not go back to the negative that was there before. Yeah, we got off on the wrong foot, but that’s the way it goes,” she said.
During their meeting Tuesday, staff from Secretary of State’s office and county clerks and recorders brainstormed ways to reduce the number of ballots that were rejected because they weren’t filled out properly or by the correct voter.
Regina Plettenberg, the top election office in Ravalli County and former president of the Clerks and Records Association, says the first step to lower the number of problem ballots is to better inform voters of the process.
“I don’t think they know what they are doing wrong. And so to me that is not intent. So how do we first do that. How do we get education out there. Get it out everywhere across the state. Because I just think that there are other things we can do first to get these numbers down that don't involve assuming voters are just doing this intentionally. I don't’ feel like a lot of them are doing this to defraud the system,” she said.
Nearly everyone on the room agreed that statewide Public Service Announcements would help. As well as expanding the My Voter Page on the Secretary of State’s website to let voters know if there are problems with their ballots and how resolve those issues.
Some county election officials, as well as the Secretary of State, stressed the importance of removing a culture within households that it’s okay to sign family members ballot, or vote for them if they aren't around to fill out their own ballot. Officials say that shouldn’t be happening.
State and county election officials also discussed changing what mail-in ballots looks like to make it clearer where a ballot needs to be signed and by whom.
The Secretary of State says legislative changes may also be part of the solution.
During the meeting, Lewis and Clark County Election Supervisor Audrey McCue cautioned against making significant changes to the state’s election system based on the study of special election ballots. She said it’s not a big enough sample size to provide quality data.
The meeting ended Tuesday without a timeline, or specifics, for possible improvements to the mail-ballot election system.