Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said in a letter read by his chief of staff to a legislative committee Thursday that he never made any allegations of 360 cases of voter fraud in the May 25 special election and that media reports were incorrect. “I made no such statement,” Stapleton said in the Sept. 14 letter to Sen. Sue Malek, chair of the State Administration and Veterans Affairs Interim Committee. And he added he would “ask you to correct the public record to the extent that you can.” Malek had invited Stapleton to the meeting saying she wanted him to come and provide more information on the “360 cases of voter fraud” that he discussed at SAVA’s July 20 meeting.
Articles about voting issues in Montana.
The Montana Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a judgment against a former state lawmaker from Bozeman who was fined $68,000 for having been found to have accepted and failed to report illegal corporate contributions. The court’s ruling affirmed a Lewis and Clark County jury decision in April 2016 against former Republican Rep. Art Wittich of Bozeman. The civil case was brought against Wittich, then a state senator, by Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices, who at the time was Jonathan Motl. After a five-day trial, 10 of 12 jurors found that Wittich violated campaign finance laws during his 2010 state Senate campaign for District 35 by accepting nearly $20,000 in in-kind contributions from the National Right to Work Committee.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s allegations of voter fraud in Montana has 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.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton has called for more thorough reviews of rejected ballots to identify cases of voter fraud, sparking an email feud with Missoula County and frustrating other election officials from Republican and Democratic counties who see no evidence of a broken system. Stapleton, who took office in January, is the first Montana Secretary of State in memory to declare a crackdown on voter fraud as a priority. The Republican’s policy shift mirrors similar efforts cropping up in other states, where the GOP has secured a growing number of the top election posts, and as President Donald Trump has asserted – with no evidence to date – that he lost the popular election because of millions of illegal votes.
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said Tuesday he’d oppose any effort to allow Montanans to change absentee ballot votes that are cast before Election Day. Most states, like Montana, do not allow early voters to change their minds. That became an issue last month when then-candidate Greg Gianforte assaulted a reporter a little over 24 hours before his election as Montana’s sole representative in the U.S. House. Reaction to the assault sparked questions by those who had already voted if they could change their ballots. By then 259,558 of the 383,301 who would cast a ballot had already voted, or nearly 68 percent. “I would be very much opposed to letting people change their vote,” Stapleton told a legislative interim committee Tuesday in response to a question about if he would support a change in the law. “I think it’s much better to wait until Election Day and (vote) once.”
The majority of Gallatin County voters did not agree with the rest of the state’s decision Thursday to elect Republican candidate Greg Gianforte to the lone congressional seat, according to election results on the secretary of state’s website. Final results show the county was in favor of Cut Bank Democratic candidate Rob Quist, who earned a 14-point win in the Republican candidate’s backyard. Libertarian candidate Mark Wicks had 4 percent of the vote in Gallatin County. In total, Gallatin had 76,633 registered voters, according to the secretary of state’s website. Charlotte Mills, clerk and recorder for Gallatin County, said 35,491 absentee ballots were cast and a little more than 6,000 voters went to the polls.
In Montana, once a ballot is put into a ballot box or dropped in the mail, it’s too late for voter to change their minds. During the first couple of hours the poll was open Thursday morning at Montana ExpoPark in Cascade County, no one had requested to get their ballot back, Cascade County Clark and Recorder Rina Moore said. If people still have an absentee ballot that they received in the mail that they would like to change, they can bring it to a poll and a new ballot will be reissued, Moore said. In Cascade County, 75 percent of registered voters, about 31,000 people, requested ballots for the May 25 special election of Montana’s only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives be mailed to them. Of those mailed ballots, 70 percent have already been returned.
With less than a day remaining until polls open in Montana’s special congressional election, county officials are busy getting ready. “Sometimes I think of planning the election kind of like planning a wedding, where there’s months and months of preparation,” said Audrey McCue, Lewis and Clark County’s elections supervisor. “The day before the election we’re wrapping up all of those preparations, getting everything ready to go, and then on Election Day, it’s the big event, the main event.”
It’s not often the state has a massive election just six months after deciding the president. Montanans know how high the stakes are. “It’s one of the basic requirements of citizenship is to go out and take part and vote,” Flathead County voter Rod Ayres said. But Montana’s special election, scheduled to take place Thursday between Democrat Rob Quist, Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Mark Wicks, is costing local election offices big money. Montana’s lone U.S. House seat is vacant following Ryan Zinke’s appointment to Secretary of the Interior. We made calls around the region to find out how much this election costs.
The May federal election brought unexpected expenses for Montana counties. The election to replace Ryan Zinke comes just months after the statewide 2016 general election. There was a big push by county elections officials statewide to bring down that cost by having the option to conduct the election by all-mail ballots. “There was 169 out of 174 commissioners and probably 70% of them were republicans that supported this, all 56 clerk and recorders supported this and we just could not get them to take action on it,” said Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Rina Moore.