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Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton sent a letter to thousands of Montanans two weeks ago stating that we need “election reform” to thwart voter fraud in Montana based on how mail-in ballots had been handled in recent Federal elections. Stapleton reports that in the recent congressional election to replace Ryan Zinke, 381,416 votes were cast and that 1,833 mailed-in ballots were not counted. He wants election reform to “greatly reduce” this number; he further states that “far too many people are voting other people’s mail ballots.”

Stapleton’s allegations about fraud are stunning and, because they totally lack evidence, irresponsible. No Montana citizen was charged or convicted of voter fraud in the last election (and police investigated some claims of fraud). There was one mail-in ballot actually voted in Missoula County where election officials missed that someone other than the named voter signed the affirmation envelope transmitting the ballot. There is no evidence of any other improper vote being counted in Montana.

Stapleton that apparently does not understand the difference between the use of absentee ballots, which are used in federal, state-wide elections, and which a voter must specifically request, and mail-in ballots, the term Stapleton uses, and which apply only to total election-by-mail events, with no open polling places, such as state law allows for school elections, sewer district elections, etc.

No fraud evidence

Of the 1,833 absentee ballots not counted in the last election and with which Stapleton suggests there is rampant voter fraud, 831 were not counted because the voters failed to sign the affirmation envelope. Another 596 were rejected because they were delivered to election officials too late, under state law, to be counted. No statutory “election reform” is going to validate the ballots of voters who fail to follow existing law and don’t sign the affirmation envelope containing their ballot, or who do not submit them timely. No fraud there.

This leaves, in the last election, 363 absentee ballots not counted because of “mismatched” signatures on affirmation envelopes (this is a signature not the voter’s, either a different name or a forgery; it is most typically one spouse signing for the other). Every absentee ballot is tracked by election officials; every signature is compared to the voter’s signature on his or her voter registration card. State law explicitly requires election officials (typically, the clerk and recorder’s office) to contact every single voter “by the most expeditious method available” whose absentee ballot cannot be accepted for any reason to try to have the voters do what is necessary to make them valid.

Gallatin count

In Gallatin County, for example, 648 voters were contacted by phone and by letter when their returned ballots either were unsigned or had a mismatched signature. This was every single unacceptable ballot. Of these, 383 voters took corrective action in a timely fashion and their ballots were counted. None claimed fraud in this process. In the end, 336 absentee ballots were rejected: 141 had no signatures, 71 were mailed too late to be counted, 124 ballots had mismatched signatures that the voters whose ballots were sent in did not clarify. None of these ballots was counted, in accordance with law.

A similar process was followed by every county election office. Every voter whose absentee ballot is found to be irregular or not appropriate is, by law, contacted by the county election office. Those offices cannot make people vote or unilaterally correct their errors. But, in almost all cases, they do reach the voter and tell them how to correct an improper ballot so that it can be counted.

Why would Stapleton make the alarming and disquieting claim there was voter fraud in the last election when there clearly wasn’t? How can our secretary of state not know the difference between mail-in ballots and absentee ballots? These questions raise serious issues involving Stapleton’s judgment and competence. Stapleton should address them directly for the benefit of all Montana voters.

-- Tom W. Stonecipher practices law in Bozeman.

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