HELENA — Secretary of State Corey Stapleton's allegations of voter fraud in Montana have widened a rift with elections officers across the state, some of whom want the elections chief to dial back his rhetoric.
As they prepare to meet for their annual convention Tuesday, elections officials are hoping to rebuild relations with Stapleton, whose combative style has left some put off.
"We are hoping for better communications with the secretary of state, and I'm hopeful that will happen in the near future," said Regina Plettenberg, the election administrator from Ravalli County and president of the Montana Association of Clerk & Recorders and Election Administrators.
Tensions have been building for months amid turmoil within Stapleton's administration. Stapleton has been without a communications director since May. Two weeks ago, Stapleton's director of elections and voter services, Derek Oestreicher, abruptly departed after a falling out that neither side wants to discuss publicly. And on Monday, a former deputy chief of staff, Stephanie Hess, began working for the state Auditor's office.
Stapleton did not respond to requests for comment.
The fissures began during the legislative session when Stapleton came out against conducting the May 25 special congressional election by mail as requested by elections clerks who were concerned about the cost to open polling places.
But the rift has widened as Stapleton has focused on voter fraud amid President Donald Trump's launch of an advisory commission looking into the integrity of the country's voting systems. Trump has asserted, without evidence, that widespread fraud took place in the November election.
The president has called on states to provide data to the commission, including partial Social Security numbers, voting history and other personal information. Stapleton has declined to provide such information.
Still, Stapleton has alleged that voter fraud may be more common than local elections officials acknowledge. In a brief interview with The Associated Press last month, he asserted that more than 360 illegal ballots were cast, though not counted, during the special election. That number is just a minuscule fraction of the 383,000 cast statewide in the election won by U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte.
Local elections officials dispute Stapleton's assertions and have asked him to provide proof, but he has thus far declined to provide details.
Kathleen D. Mumme, Madison County's election administrator, said in a letter to Stapleton last week that election administrators across the state "feel as though they have been kicked in the stomach by someone who is supposed to be the captain of their team."
Mumme's letter, which underscored concern about Stapleton's voter fraud allegations, was obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request. Mumme called Stapleton vindictive and lacking professionalism, and suggested that he lashed out at individual elections officials who have taken issue with him.
"I have a difficult time understanding what seems to be your attempt at making Montana Counties look bad, and your inability to mend fences," she wrote.
Mumme and other county elections administrators bristle at the secretary of state's assertions that they aren't taking his fraud allegations seriously.
"It would be interesting to see where he's getting his statistics," said Lana Claassen, the elections officer for Chouteau County.
The Associated Press last month filed a public records request with the Secretary of State's Office seeking information documenting Stapleton's voter fraud allegations. The request has yet to be fulfilled.
While allegations of fraud shouldn't be ignored, said former Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, it's become an unnecessary distraction while elections officials struggle with modernizing voting systems and widening access to the ballot. "Those things are incredibly important - as is voter fraud, if it existed, but it just doesn't exist," she said.
Another former Secretary of State, Brad Johnson, who now chairs the Public Services Commission, said differences will always arise between state and local officials, but it's important to hash things out to protect the integrity of state elections.
"If people start believing there's fraud, whether or not there's fraud, it becomes a critical problem for us," he said.