Montana does not have issues of coordinated voter fraud, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton told a group of elections officials Tuesday.

But it does have issues that need to be addressed, he said.

Stapleton met with the officials Tuesday to discuss the results of a survey of votes that were cast but not counted in a May special election, and to discuss ways to improve the voting process going forward. 

After the May 25 vote — held to elect a U.S. House representative to replace Ryan Zinke, who was appointed Secretary of the Interior — Stapleton expressed concern over voter misconduct.

He said there were 363 cases of mismatched signatures out of 383,000 votes cast. Those ballots were caught by elections workers and not counted.

“The good news is in my mindset we don’t have systematic or coordinated voter fraud in our state like they have in some states,” he said. “The flip side of that is … we have dozens of acknowledged cases of voter misconduct.”

Tuesday's four-hour, wide-ranging meeting included county elections officers from around the state. Their discussion focused on some of the main reasons ballots were not counted — they were not signed, had an incorrect signature or arrived late — but also touched on issues that have arisen between Stapleton and the clerks in the past and other issues with voting by mail in Montana.

Full results of the survey were not made public Tuesday because they still needed to be redacted to remove voter names or other identifying details, but Stapleton said data would be published by the end of the year. The survey focused on ballots cast by mail.

In Montana, any registered voter can request an absentee ballot. The number of people who vote that way has increased over the years, from 30 percent in the 2008 general election to 48 percent in the 2016 general election.

Dana Corson, elections director for the Secretary of State, said that of the 363 people whose ballots had mismatched signatures, about 270 were not able to be contacted during the survey.

Unsigned ballots were far more common than mismatched signatures, by nearly two-thirds, Corson said. Other problems included the right person signing the ballot with a signature that didn’t match what was on file with the elections office, with some people saying it was because they had a broken arm, were critically ill or just in a hurry.

Fourteen people were aware their vote did not count, while 17 didn’t know. Elections administrators attempt to clear up issues before polls close and are required to notify people whose ballots are not able to be counted, but sometimes people either don't open mail informing them of issues with their vote or don't respond to other attempts by elections workers to contact them.

Gallatin County had the most mismatched signatures, Corson said, with 124. In Missoula County there were 40, Flathead County had 48 and Yellowstone County had 68.

Of the 100 or so voters who could be reached in the survey, 38 cases involved mismatched signatures resulted from one member of a family signing someone else’s ballot. That included husbands and wives signing each other’s ballots, as well as parents signing a ballot for a child who was away at college.

Many contacted by Secretary of State staff members said they didn't know it was wrong to sign someone else's ballot or they were surprised anyone noticed.

But Stapleton said those cases constituted what he called “voter misconduct,” and said similar cases in future elections could be referred to Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan for investigation.

The commissioner has not previously dealt with voting issues and focuses more on elections activities by candidates. But Mangan said that in the special election a claim of voter fraud in Lewis and Clark County was directed to his office. He asked the local sheriff’s office investigate on behalf of the office. Mangan found enough cause to forward the case to the county attorney for consideration of prosecution.

“The jurisdiction for an election fraud is likely under the Commissioner of Political Practices based on our statues and not under the Secretary of State’s Office,” said Mangan, who attended the meeting. He added that some of his long-term staff members could not recall taking up the issue of election fraud before.

Stapleton said while the survey only turned up 38 cases of mismatched signatures within families, the total number of cases like that in the special election could have been as great as 400 over the entire voter turnout.

The elections officials at the meeting and Mangan said it was probably at the lower end of the spectrum, and also raised questions of how prosecution would work among family members.

Some disagreement over the term to use to describe ballots that fell into this category caused a bit of tension during the meeting, though Ruth Baker, the clerk and recorder for Treasure County, said the relationship between Stapleton and elections officials has improved a lot over the last few months. 

State Sen. Sue Malek, a Democrat from Missoula who has clashed with Stapleton before and who attended the meeting, objected to the Secretary of State’s use of the term “illegal” when describing the ballots, a term he has used in the past.

“These are rejected ballots. They are not illegal ballots, period. I don’t want to hear that term used because I think it intimidates voters and makes them afraid to hand in a ballot because they forgot to sign it. … It is not illegal; it is rejected by Montana law,” Malek said. “When you use the term illegal it sounds like I could be arrested. … I hope I will not hear that terminology used again.”

Stapleton told Malek he would continue to use the terms and that the meeting was not a place to “be political.”

“If it’s not a legal ballot, it is an illegal ballot,” Stapleton said. “I agree language matters, that’s why I use the phrase that doesn’t even exist in statute, which is voter misconduct, so we can acknowledge that people do things they shouldn’t without going all the way to the end of the world.”

Among county elections officials, there was no clear consensus about which issue to tackle first — mismatched signatures, unsigned ballots or late ballots. But all agreed and supported Stapleton’s office producing a series of public service announcements that would make clear to voters how to use an absentee ballot and when ballots should be sent. Stapleton said that would happen in the spring of next year in advance of the the June primary election and would focus on voter education about absentee ballots.

Regina Plettenberg, Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder, said she thinks the best first step should be voter education.

“We’ve got to let these folks know what they’re doing. … I don’t even think they realize they’re doing something wrong. … I just think there’s other things we can do first to get these numbers down that don’t involve thinking these voters are doing this intentionally,” Plettenberg said.

“Regardless of how we feel about the numbers and the statistic and the data and all that, we do know we all have to reject a certain amount of ballots every election. … If we can get word out to the voters so at least when you do reject them, we do know, ‘Hey we tried to get the word out to them,’ … all you can do is try.”

Rebecca Connors, the elections administrator for Missoula County, pointed out that the survey shows clerks are successful in stopping ballots that should not be counted from being recorded.

“To me, if anything, this survey has shown that the process works. There is a stopgap in the process. We are preventing ballots from being counted that should not be counted on Election Day.”

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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