MISSOULA — Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has called for more thorough reviews of rejected ballots to identify cases of voter fraud, sparking an email feud with Missoula County and frustrating other election officials from Republican and Democratic counties who see no evidence of a broken system.

Stapleton, who took office in January, is the first Montana Secretary of State in memory to declare a crackdown on voter fraud as a priority. The Republican's policy shift mirrors similar efforts cropping up in other states, where the GOP has secured a growing number of the top election posts, and as President Donald Trump has asserted – with no evidence to date – that he lost the popular election because of millions of illegal votes.

In Montana, Stapleton and other top Republicans opposed allowing counties to do an all-mail election to fill a U.S. House seat vacated in March. Some criticized that stance as a politically motivated effort to suppress votes. Last month, Stapleton issued a press release suggesting one rejected ballot in Missoula County was the result of fraud. Election administrators and political analysts questioned why he would target a Democratic stronghold rather than Yellowstone County, a GOP-leaning community with a higher rate of rejected ballots.

Stapleton denied any suggestion he is looking to score political points by taking up his party’s latest cause. He noted, for instance, that he has joined several states refusing to turn over voter databases to Trump’s Election Integrity Commission for privacy reasons. The request has been temporarily withdrawn as courts weigh in on lawsuits filed in its wake.

“Some of the questions I’ve asked or points I’ve raised, nobody has ever bothered to discuss,” Stapleton said of his office’s interest in reviewing rejected ballots for signs of fraud. “We have not convicted anyone of voter fraud in Montana this century… If you question it like I am, it’s almost heresy. They take it as an affront to the job they’re doing.”

Regina Plettenberg, president of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, said members of her organization were caught off guard by Stapleton’s press release critical of Missoula County, wishing he would have first talked to the professional organization about what he thought had been done wrong.

She and Yellowstone County Elections Administrator Bret Rutherford – both of whom work in communities that reliably elect GOP candidates – said they are open to suggestions from Stapleton about how to improve, but worry continued discussions of voter fraud without any substantive proof of malice could unnecessarily weaken public trust in elections. Numerous academic studies repeatedly have found no evidence of wide-scale fraud in American elections.

Plettenberg, the Ravalli County clerk and recorder, said the majority of rejected ballots in Montana result from simple human error, either on the part of the voter or of temporary workers who review ballot signatures.

According to state statistics from the last two elections provided by Stapleton, mail ballots were most often rejected because they arrived late, were missing a signature, or had a signature that did not match the voter’s registration file. A handful more were rejected when someone casting a provisional ballot did not have a photo ID or for “other,” unspecified reasons.

Plettenberg said she does not think Montana elections officials are shirking their duties to guard against fraud or to report potential crimes to local police for investigation. Those cases are rare and investigations can be difficult, she said.

“It’s circular,” Plettenberg said. “The Secretary of State feels it’s the duty of election administrators and local law enforcement to investigate these, yet we’re hearing from our local law enforcement that the Secretary of State needs to be a part of this process.”

Rutherford agreed. He wondered why Stapleton had singled out Missoula County when Yellowstone County rejected five times as many ballots in May’s special election — still less than 1 percent of votes cast — and questioned how Stapleton proposes to strengthen elections.

“Is he saying we should send every single one of those to the county attorney’s office? Think of the volume of the man hours to dig into something like that when you know 99.9 percent is just a voter error,” Rutherford said. “Do you spend excessive resources and money to find something that’s not there in the first place?”

Stapleton points to the 1,833 ballots rejected in May’s special election as evidence that something in Montana’s current system can be improved. There were 383,301 votes counted, which means fewer than 0.5 percent of ballots were rejected. Barely more than 0.2 percent were rejected in the fall 2016 election.  The difference appears, in part, to be because more people mailed their ballots late for the special election.  

Stapleton described “a culture of permissivity” in Missoula County after his office learned that one of the 91 rejected ballots from May’s election had been reported by a woman who said she had not cast her vote by mail despite records showing she had. After her complaint, the county reviewed the absentee ballot cast in her name and concluded the signature might have been a mismatch. They rejected the original ballot and allowed the woman to cast a new one.

For weeks, the Stapleton has traded pointed emails with Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors and the Missoula County attorney’s office. At the heart of that dispute is whether county elections officials and local law enforcement did enough to review the case, which Missoula leaders chalk up to a likely instance of mail getting mixed up at an apartment complex. Stapleton has argued it should be investigated until local leaders can confirm that theory definitively or instead prove criminal fraud.

Current practices, Stapleton said, assume the majority of disqualified ballots are honest mistakes and not attempts to fraudulently vote. He wants to turn that assumption on its head and has argued local election administrators, police and county attorneys must do more to identify bad actors and convict them.

He said does not believe Montana has experienced the kind of significant, organized fraud caught by election officials in some other states, in large part because the process here remains human-intensive and does not use electronic voting machines. But Stapleton nonetheless worries the state could be vulnerable without a closer analysis of rejected ballots. Or, maybe criminals simply have not been caught yet, he said.

“In the best case scenario, there’s zero fraud,” which he said would mean the state could do a better job to help voters reduce simple errors since it is not rare for local races to be decided by a handful of votes.

“In the worst case scenario, some were forged or there was mal intent,” he said. “That’s a problem, and we should be able to talk about that without getting personally attacked or accused of trying to replicate what Trump’s doing.”

Local election administrators have watched Stapleton spar with Missoula County from afar, wondering if they, too, soon will be targeted or if this is just a bad start to what could be a fruitful effort to improve elections security.

“If Missoula’s doing it wrong then we’re all doing it wrong,'' Plettenberg said. "Maybe there is a change of direction that his office wants us to take.

“I’m hopeful he’ll get some solutions and bring that to our group and train our group on how he’d like to see us to proceed in future elections.”

The association has formally requested Stapleton’s elections chief, who has served multiple secretaries of state, to provide additional training on signature verification and ballot rejection at their August conference.

“Our group has always had a better partnership with our secretary of state’s office,” she said.

Both Stapleton and local officials admitted their relationship had a rocky start just a few months into the former legislator’s first term as secretary of state when he opposed an all-mail ballot for the special election, saying it would weaken ballot security and disenfranchise Native American voters. The majority of counties argued they wanted the mail-in option, which would have been significantly cheaper and not any less secure than in-person polling.

In separate interviews, Stapleton and elections administrators said they hope to move past that professional difference. Yet both see it as a sign of underlying disagreements about the security of mail voting that could shape future discussions.

Stapleton said he has heard no pushback from elections administrators about the new focus of his office – except from Missoula County. He said he has not yet reached out to other elections officials or to any local law enforcement groups because his office is still gathering information about rejected ballots and they have not yet developed suggestions on how to improve security.

Broadly, Stapleton said he expects changes to the election process itself would be more effective than administrative rules changes about how ballots are handled. He said that he would not suggest an end to mail ballots, which he thinks the state can "make work.” Instead, he said other possibilities include shifting away from the U.S. Postal Service, “better options for IDs” or “creative ideas” Montana could adopt from other states.

“I hope something good can come of this,” Stapleton said. “Personal attacks aside from reporters and officials from Missoula County.”

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