HELENA — Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said Tuesday he’d oppose any effort to allow Montanans to change absentee ballot votes that are cast before Election Day.
Most states, like Montana, do not allow early voters to change their minds. That became an issue last month when then-candidate Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter a little over 24 hours before his election as Montana’s sole representative in the U.S. House.
Reaction to the assault sparked questions by those who had already voted if they could change their ballots. By then 259,558 of the 383,301 who would cast a ballot had already voted, or nearly 68 percent.
“I would be very much opposed to letting people change their vote,” Stapleton told a legislative interim committee Tuesday in response to a question about if he would support a change in the law. “I think it’s much better to wait until Election Day and (vote) once.”
An absentee ballot is considered voted when it is received by the county election office. It would take a bill by the state Legislature to change that.
“If this last election was any indication, sometimes the best voters are the most informed voters and sometimes the most informed voters vote on Election Day,” Stapleton said. Early votes are typically ones that vote party lines or less likely to change their minds based on any late news about candidates, political scientists said in the fallout after Gianforte's assault.
The secretary of state has spoken out in opposition to conducting elections by mail in the past. In Montana, people can vote early by mail if they request an absentee ballot. This has become increasingly popular in recent elections. In the 2000 general election, only 15 percent of registered voters cast ballots absentee by mail. Last fall that number was 65 percent.
Before the special election, a Republican state lawmaker proposed a bill that would have allowed that vote only to be conducted by mail to save counties, many of which had to reprint ballots for last fall’s vote and were tight on cash, money.
Though the bill was supported by all but two of the state’s 56 county election officials, it was defeated after then-Montana GOP chairman Jeff Essmann sent out an emergency email saying that the higher turnout potentially created by mail-only balloting benefited Democrats.
Stapleton testified in front of a legislative committee last winter against the bill, saying at the time he had concerns voting by mail opened the door to ballot fraud, as well as more liberal policies.
“If you look at the three states that have done it, you can see that populism and direct democracy at its best, all three states, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, they do all-mail-in ballots and they’re all marijuana-all-the-time states too. Is that what you want? Because that’s what you’re going to get.”
On Tuesday he said added concerns over late-breaking information about candidates to that list.
“There’s a reason why teachers don't give out grades a month before the class is over and there’s a reason trophies aren’t given to championship teams a month before the season ends,” he said. “Sometimes more information comes out."
He also said he believed allowing people to change their votes would put voter privacy at risk.
“If people were able to go in and let's say it’s a legislative race and people wanted to change their vote and it was a close race and there was a recount, it could get really, really messy.”