Stapleton updates review process for problematic mail ballots

Posted at 12:06 PM, Feb 16, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-16 14:06:40-05

HELENA – Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, who caused a political stir last year when he highlighted 363 mail ballots not counted because of improper signatures, says his office and others have agreed how to review such ballots for possible “voter misconduct.”

Stapleton, the state’s chief elections officer, said county election officials still will try to resolve any conflicts with non-matching signatures on mail ballot envelopes.

But his office and the commissioner of political practices also will be notified, he said – and the commissioner may decide whether to pursue cases where someone may have intentionally cast a false vote.

“When you get to a point where you can’t de-conflict it, then forward it to (the commissioner’s) office, just like anyone else that has a campaign violation or suspects it,” Stapleton told MTN News this week. “What we’re looking for is consistency and following the law.”

Under state law, the commissioner has the legal jurisdiction to investigate or pursue deceptive election practices.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan told MTN News Friday that in the rare instance that someone might be intentionally casting a false vote, his office could review the matter and perhaps make a recommendation to local prosecutors.

“We’re not trying to change what any of these counties have done in the past,” he said. “We’re just adding us as someone else to look at it.”

Last year, after a May 25 special election that chose Montana’s U.S. House member, Stapleton noted that 363 absentee ballots had not been counted because of non-matching signatures on envelopes contained the ballot.

His office called it “voter misconduct,” and some Democrats objected, saying Stapleton, a Republican, had falsely suggested the occurrence of widespread voter fraud.

Stapleton said he never used the word “fraud” and that he merely wanted to have a consistent and legal way of handling mail ballots that might have incorrect signatures.  

Envelopes containing mailed ballots must be signed by the voter and county election officials check those signatures against the ones on file, in voter registrations. If those signatures don’t match, local officials attempt to contact the voter and resolve the conflict.

If it can’t be resolved, the votes are not counted.

Stapleton said it’s important to handle such ballot disputes consistently across the state and make sure all votes are properly counted, because in Montana, many races can be decided by just a few votes.

“I’ve had friends and known people in this state who’ve run legislatively and who’ve lost by a vote, who’ve had a tie vote, who’ve had tie-breakers,” he said. “If you allow even a handful of votes that are cast in the wrong light, a small problem can become a big problem, if you don’t deal with it.”