Corey Stapleton

Secretary of State Corey Stapleton testified against a vote-by-mail law in March, telling the Montana House Judiciary Committee that it would open up the state to lawsuits and that the existing election system works well.

Thom Bridge, Independent Record

After Secretary of State Corey Stapleton made claims of voter fraud in recent Montana elections, a state senator is pushing him to provide proof.

Sen. Sue Malek, a Democrat from Missoula, sent Stapleton a letter Aug. 3 requesting he provide documentation for statements he made saying there were 360 cases of fraudulent ballots in the May 25 special election to elect a new Congressman after Ryan Zinke was appointed Secretary of the Interior.

Malek pressed Stapleton in a July 20 meeting of the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Interim Committee, where Stapleton made the statement. The senator pointed out that was a tiny amount compared to 383,000 total ballots cast and cases of mismatched signatures, which Stapleton has clashed with Malek’s home county of Missoula over, do not constitute fraud.

“I think it’s those situations that the Secretary of State is calling voter fraud. And that’s really concerning because of course the legal definition of fraud is intent to deceive and take advantage. And that isn’t what’s happening in Montana,” Malek said.

Malek’s letter asks that Stapleton provide documentation of fraud at the committee’s Sept. 14 meeting. The Associated Press has also filed a request with the Secretary of State’s office that has not yet been filled asking for documentation of the fraud cases, as has Lee Newspapers.

Malek asked for the name of the counties where fraud occurred, the number of fraudulent votes in each county, the number of cases cited by charge, such as mismatched signatures, no signature or other issues and what legal actions have been taken.

In her letter, Malek reminded Stapleton “a charge of fraud must be proven legally with proof of intent.”

A spokeswoman for Stapleton said Thursday he was at the annual meeting of the state clerks and recorders association and not able to answer questions.

She also said there is was no information regarding "the Missoula victim of voter fraud."

The spokeswoman confirmed receiving the letter from Malek but said Stapleton had not yet told the committee if he would attend the Sept. 14 meeting.

Stapleton has clashed with Missoula County 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, voided and the woman was allowed to vote again. The case was reported to the Missoula Police Department and the Secretary of State.

Stapleton got off to a rocky start in office by opposing a bill that would have allowed the special election to be conducted by mail. County clerks from around the state said it would save them money on an unexpected election. Stapleton objected, saying voting by mail was not secure and tying the process to states that allow the use of recreational marijuana.

“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,” he said in a February hearing.

He’s struggled to strengthen relationships with the state’s clerks and recorders since. Stapleton’s director of elections and voter services, Derek Oestreicher, also left abruptly last month, though Oestreicher would not discuss why and Stapleton did not return calls for comment.

Republican State Rep. Geraldine Custer, who was a county clerk for 36 years, said she doesn’t believe Montana has voter fraud, though some occasional mistakes do occur.

Husbands and wives might accidentally sign each other’s absentee ballots, but clerks catch these mistakes and correct the issue.

“It’s just a political thing,” Custer, from Forsyth, said of Stapleton’s claims of fraud. “He’s just doing what the national people are doing, trying to undermine democracy by saying there’s issues with elections and voter fraud. I think it builds distrust and that it undermines democracy.”

In a small state like Montana, clerks know their communities and fellow residents well and can give special attention to make sure everyone has the opportunity to vote, Custer said.

“I think that the clerks in the state are working hard to make sure our elections are run well,” she said. “There’s errors, human errors, but I don’t think it’s with a malicious intent to change the outcome.”

Crying voter fraud was a common refrain of Republican President Donald Trump when he campaigned last fall and appears to be becoming part of the playbook for some members of his 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.

Earlier this summer the president created a voter fraud commission to investigate claims of widespread fraud, though there is no documentation or evidence of that ever happening in the U.S. Many critics view it as a play to suppress Democratic voter turnout and distract from the presidential campaign’s ties to Russia and that country’s meddling in U.S. elections.

Montana rejected the commission’s request to turn over private voter information such as Social Security numbers and birth dates, though other information such as names and voting history are already public and may be requested by anyone and made available for a fee. Montana does not collect party affiliation information since the state has open primaries.

“I’ve gotten calls from people who say ‘Is this just the Trump stuff?’” Malek said of Stapleton’s claims. “This just feeds into the hands of that.”

State Rep. Bryce Bennett, also from Missoula, called Stapleton’s accusations “baseless” and “very detrimental to our democracy.”

“From my perspective, what I’m seeing from Secretary Stapleton currently is a series of baseless accusations of voter fraud that he has provided no proof to back up. We have elections administrators who take their duty of upholding the integrity of our elections very seriously and I feel if the Secretary of State is going to throw out an accusation that there is fraud in any county in Montana he needs to have proof to back that up and so far he has not done that.”

Malek said if there are any cases of voter fraud, she wants the interim committee to be able to investigate and work to make the state’s elections secure.

“I want him to come in and show us what he actually has,” Malek said. “Even if there are a handful of instances that really are voter fraud we want to follow up on those. I don’t want voter fraud happening. It’s this committee's responsibility to make sure all of this is happening correctly. I just want to know what he’s got.”

Lee Newspapers attempted to contact former Montana Republican Party chairman Jeff Essmann, who was a state representative in last spring's legislative session representing the Billings area, for comment on this story. Essmann has been a advocate of stronger laws to protect what he called an opportunity for ballot fraud, bringing a bill that would have severely limited who could turn in ballots on behalf of others. That bill ultimately failed.

During the 2016 fall election Essmann also called on then-Secretary of State Linda McCulloch to release a public service announcement encouraging absentee voters to hand-deliver their ballots or return them by mail instead of giving them to volunteers going door-to-door offering to return ballots.

Lee Newspapers also reached out to Speaker of the House Rep. Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, who held a strong stance against allowing mail-in voting for the special election.

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