The Montana secretary of state denied Thursday that he had claimed there were 360 cases of voter fraud in a May special election, saying he was misquoted in news stories.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton sent his chief of staff to read a letter to a legislative committee Thursday, blaming the Associated Press and Lee Newspapers for “incorrectly” citing a statement he made at a summer hearing.
The dispute stems from a July 20 meeting of the State Administration and Veterans Affairs interim legislative committee. The committee meets during the 18 months between legislative sessions and as a part of its general duties receives updates from state agencies such as the Secretary of State’s Office.
At the July meeting, Stapleton discussed a May special election to fill Montana’s empty seat in the U.S. House. A recording of the meeting shows Stapleton said:
“We’ve never had voter fraud in Montana this century. I mean nobody. And ask yourself if we had no DUIs, if we had no shoplifting, if we had no sexual assaults, would we really say that we don’t have those things? Or would we say we don’t have voter fraud because we’ve never pursued it or we don’t understand? Three-hundred — I don’t know the exact number — but in the special election for example over 300 signatures were illegal statewide.”
The Associated Press later reported: “Montana’s chief elections officer alleged Thursday that voter fraud may be more common than local officials acknowledge and asserted that more than 360 illegal ballots were cast, but not counted, during the special congressional election in May.”
The Associated Press on Thursday declined to comment on its reporting, saying it was working to contact its attorneys before commenting.
State Sen. Sue Malek, who is chairwoman of the interim committee, in August sent Stapleton a letter asking him to attend Thursday’s meeting to provide “more information” about the claims of voter fraud.
She wrote “During our discussion with you, we spoke about your office’s allegations of voter fraud in Montana. An Associated Press article that appeared the next day cited you saying there were 360 cases of voter fraud in Montana.”
Stapleton’s letter Thursday, read by chief of staff Christi Jacobsen, said Lee Newspapers used Malek’s letter “to continue the incorrect accusation of widespread voter fraud.” Stapleton did not attend Thursday's meeting.
Stapleton’s letter said he made “no such statement” that there were 360 cases of voter fraud. He asked Malek, a Democrat from Missoula, to correct the public record. He also said the Associated Press reporter who wrote the initial story was no longer working at the AP, though that is because the reporter’s contract ended.
The letter also said Stapleton contacted Lee Newspaper editors. Jacobsen later said the Secretary of State’s Office contacted The Billings Gazette.
The Gazette was never contacted by Stapleton with a request for a correction to its reporting. A search of wire reports shows The Associated Press also never sent a correction to state papers.
Stapleton did meet with the Gazette in August because he was upset about an editorial written by the paper, but did not cite any factual errors in reporting.
A reporter for Lee Newspapers attempted to contact Stapleton via his office phone, cellphone and email before writing a story about Malek’s letter in August. Jacobsen replied to an email asking for comment but did not provide a comment. On Thursday she said the Secretary of State's Office uses the terms "illegal" or "not legal" or "mismatched" signatures interchangeably to describe when the signature on an outer envelope of a ballot is deemed not to be the same person whose name is printed on the ballot.
"Fraud is a much higher bar, as it requires proving 'intent' to commit a crime, not just showing that one person signed another person's ballot," Jacobsen wrote in an email.
Stapleton’s letter also said there is an active investigation in Butte-Silver Bow County by the sheriff’s department concerning three cases of voter misconduct. He also said he anticipates finding additional “cases of interest” as he reviews the 363 ballots where voters’ signatures did not match what was on file.
Sen. Doug Kary, R-Billings, asked Malek on Thursday if she would apologize to Stapleton.
“This is about a process, a process that is meant to be foolproof,” Kary said. “You have the bully pulpit, you can speak as much as you want. I have not heard an apology to the Secretary of State yet.”
Malek said she didn’t intend to apologize.
“The article was in the paper,” she said, adding that the Associated Press filed a records request to get more information about Stapleton’s claims of 363 illegal ballots. Malek and Lee Newspapers have also submitted requests to Stapleton.
Thursday evening Jeffrey M. Hindoien, chief legal counsel for the office, sent Lee Newspapers a letter from Stapleton saying that since the paper's records request was "based on a false assertion," it did not have any documents to supply. It did forward information about one case of voter fraud in Butte where a woman asked that her boyfriend be prosecuted for voter fraud for intentionally voting her ballot.
Malek said Thursday she was pleased to finally get a response from Stapleton.
“We have gotten a response that says that accusation of 360-plus ballots being fraudulently cast in Montana was a misstatement apparently and was never made by the Secretary of State. I would have expected the office to issue a clarification some time ago through the press.”
Addressing Stapleton’s general comments in the letter about issues with voting, such as 596 late ballots and 831 ballots without signatures from last November’s elections, she said: “I do not want our democracy undermined and people to believe our elections are not carefully and legally run in Montana.”
Claims of voter fraud were a common refrain of President Donald Trump when he campaigned last fall and appear to be becoming part of the playbook for some fellow members of the Republican Party.
Even after his electoral college victory but loss of the popular vote, Trump has continued to make false claims that nearly 3 million people fraudulently voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton.
On Thursday, Malek said the Secretary of State’s Office reported that Trump’s commission on voter fraud had purchased Montana’s publicly available voter file, which contains information including a voter’s first name, last name, registration status, whether they are active or inactive and the reason the voter is designated as active or inactive.
The commission, in a move that was widely panned and rejected by most states, had also asked for information including names, voting history, birthdays and the last four digits of the Social Security numbers of voters.
Stapleton has clashed with Missoula County, where Malek is from, over mismatched signatures on ballots that were rejected in the May 25 election.
Emails obtained by the Missoulian through a records request showed Stapleton and elections administrator Rebecca Connors had a series of harsh exchanges over 91 ballots rejected because of signature issues. Only one ballot was incorrectly counted, but Connors said it was a mistake where a person accidentally voted another person's ballot. The miscounted ballot was found and voided, and the woman was allowed to vote again. The case was reported to the Missoula Police Department and the Secretary of State.