Opening Day of the 65th Legislative Session-secondary for cover

Secretary of State Cory Stapleton, addresses House legislators in January during the first day of Montana’s 65th legislative session at the Capitol.

Thom Bridge,thom.bridge@helenair.com

MISSOULA -- “There will never be voter fraud in Missoula.”

That’s the headline to Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s letter to the editor published in the Missoulian in late June.

Though he meant it sarcastically, referring to the 91 (of 47,000) ballots rejected by Missoula County Elections officials as fraudulent in the May special election, the Board of County Commissioners agreed with the assessment.

“What the secretary is either not cognizant of or willfully disregarding, is the level of effort that goes into canvassing the election,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said Thursday. “We went through all of this process in detail.”

The commissioners met Thursday with Elections Administrator Rebecca Connors and Deputy County Attorney Matt Jennings to discuss the “flurry of activity” between Connors and Stapleton since the special election.

Of the 91 rejected ballots, Connors said one was incorrectly counted. The rest of the ballots had either no signature, a mismatched signature, or some other mistake on the form, and were voided.

The single miscounted ballot was mailed to an apartment building, where Connors confirmed the mail is sometimes mixed up among tenants.

A different person filled out the ballot and sent it back with their own signature — most likely they just didn’t read it carefully enough to notice it was another person’s ballot, Connors said.

“They weren’t trying to replicate the voter’s signature on file,” Connors said. “They signed their own signature, which I think makes it a mix-up.”

It was counted, even after the election office’s process of checking signatures. The woman who should have received the ballot called the elections center, wondering why her ballot was listed as cast, when she didn’t get one.

“Something went awry,” Jennings admitted. “There is human error.”

Connors found the miscounted ballot, voided it, allowed the woman to vote (it was well within the deadline) and reported the error to the Missoula Police Department and the Secretary of State’s office.

“That’s where things got somewhat bizarre,” Jennings said. “We didn’t know the magnitude that the Secretary of State was treating this with until we received a press release saying they were treating this as fraud.”

The news release took county officials, including Connors, Jennings and the commissioners, by surprise and kicked off an email exchange between Stapleton and Connors. Stapleton continued to accuse Missoula County of not taking voter fraud seriously (and asserting all 91 rejected ballots were evidence of fraud), all while shifting the onus for actually investigating the incident away from his office.

“I cannot prosecute fraud from Helena,” Stapleton wrote in a July 3 email to Connors. “All I can do is hold a mirror up to you, challenge you to question your OWN motives (versus mine) as to why 91 illegal signatures on mail ballots are once again going to be silently set aside on the shelf of indifference.”

Connors responded July 5 asking if Stapleton (whose news release singled out Missoula County) thought the 528 rejected ballots in Yellowstone County constituted fraud. Or the 336 rejected in Gallatin County, or the 99 rejected in Lewis and Clark County or the 207 rejected in Flathead.

Stapleton’s legal counsel, according to Jennings, said the Secretary of State was using Missoula County as an example to try and start a “dialogue” on legislative action around voting procedures in Montana.

There was no elaboration as to what the legislation would entail.

“Any conversation on legislative changes needs to start with accurate information,” Jennings said.

The commissioners agreed that a conversation could happen and decided to reply to Stapleton, defending Missoula County against his allegations and asking what he thinks can and should be done to fix the issue.

The commissioners oversee the elections and appoint the elections administrator, putting them as elected officials “in the line of fire as well,” Strohmaier said.

Strohmaier began the meeting irked by the tone of Stapleton’s correspondence with Connors, saying he showed “contempt” and “unprofessionalism.”

Commissioner Jean Curtiss agreed, calling the matter “ridiculous” and “juvenile.”

“There isn’t any logic,” Commissioner Cola Rowley said. “That’s why I’m confused."

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