A letter from Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton to State Sen. Sue Malek made public during a legislative committee meeting last week brought to light three possible cases of voter misconduct in Butte-Silver Bow County, but one local official says the ballots in question are not likely the result of fraud.
Butte Silver-Bow Clerk and Recorder Sally Hollis and Sheriff Ed Lester told The Montana Standard Tuesday that the sheriff’s department has been investigating the three cases mentioned in Stapleton’s letter, two of which involved people who allegedly voted via absentee ballot and in person at the polls.
One of incidents, Hollis said, occurred during the general election in November and the other during the May congressional special election and were the result of judging errors. Hollis said in both cases election judges failed to note on a voter list that the individuals had already voted by absentee ballot. She said in both incidents the individuals "don't recall voting two ballots."
“We do not have voter fraud. We have errors,” said Hollis, who said that she takes umbrage with the fact that Stapleton’s letter has caused some to believe that the questionable ballots were the result of fraud.
The third case, Hollis and Lester said, involves an absentee ballot that was signed during the special election by someone other than the ballot owner using the ballot owner’s name. The mismatch signature was detected when election officials cross-referenced the signature on the ballot with the voter’s registration, which officials do for all absentee ballots.
Hollis said the voter was contacted and claimed that an ex-boyfriend had signed her absentee ballot.
Ex-boyfriend’s signature or not, the three Butte ballots have become a point of discussion in Helena.
Stapleton wrote the letter to Malek, a Democrat from Missoula, in response to reporting by the Associated Press and Lee Newspapers in which, the secretary of state said, the two news agencies misconstrued statements he made during a July 20 State Administration and Veterans Affairs committee meeting. The AP article in question states that Stapleton claimed there were 360 cases of voter fraud in Montana during the special election, but in his letter Stapleton contends that he made no such statement. A recording of the meeting shows that Stapleton mentioned the existence of over 300 “illegal” signatures, but did not name the signatures as incidents of voter fraud.
At the end of his letter, Stapleton states that “a handful of cases of voter misconduct have been brought to my attention” and cites the three Butte ballots as examples.
While any instance of voting errors are “one too many,” Lester said he does not believe that large numbers of ballots are being cast fraudulently in Silver Bow County, in which 12,393 ballots were cast during the special election and 16,439 in the presidential portion of the general election. Three ballots represent 0.024 and 0.018 percent of the total ballots cast in the two elections, respectively.
“Given the large number of votes that were cast and the small number of discrepancies detected by the clerk and recorder, I do not believe there is a widespread issue,” he said.
As for the potential voter misconduct cases, Lester said:
“Once our investigation is completed, the case files will be sent to the office of the County Attorney. Each case will be evaluated as to whether or not prosecution is appropriate.’’