Missoula County commissioners on Thursday accused the Montana secretary of state of using artificial data to drive a personal legislative agenda and called the tone of several recent emails sent by the newly elected official as both “unprofessional” and “juvenile.”
In one email response, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton went so far as to suggest he didn’t have the time or interest to fight voter fraud. At the same time, however, he said he was willing to “change the rules” to match what he described as rampant voter fraud in Missoula County.
Missoula County commissioners said Thursday that enough was enough and agreed to respond to Stapleton as a unified board. Stapleton has not responded to county requests to discuss the issue in person, they said.
Stapleton could not be reached Thursday for comment.
“I can’t think of an instance where I’ve seen a statewide elected official treat a staff person with such contempt, and with such unprofessionalism in his approach,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “One of our employees has been wrongly accused of operating a slipshod election, and that completely warrants us to officially get on the record with a letter to the secretary.”
The issue stems back to February when Stapleton lobbied the Legislature to kill a GOP bill that would have allowed the special congressional election between Rob Quist and Greg Gianforte to be conducted by mail only. Counties had hoped to conduct the election by mail, arguing that staffing the voting polls would cost tens of thousands of extra dollars.
Missoula County Elections Supervisor Rebecca Connors sent Stapleton an email that month, urging him to reconsider his position on the issue. The exchange from Stapleton’s office went downhill from there, Connors said.
“Reading the (Bozeman Daily) Chronicle article this morning was very disheartening, as I chalk it up to politics rather than the best interest of the taxpayers, voters and election administrators,” Connors wrote in her initial email to Stapleton. “The financial and logistical burden placed on Missoula County will be enormous for one race.”
Stapleton later called that email “mean” and said it set a bad precedent in his relationship with the Missoula County Elections Office.
That relationship would sour further after the congressional election was finished. After conducting its canvassing, the Missoula County Elections Office officially rejected 91 ballots, though a Missoulian article had suggested it was 150.
Despite being told otherwise, Stapleton stuck with the higher number and accused Missoula County of condoning voter fraud.
“Later I believe you amended that number of illegal signatures on ballots down to 91—that is just confirming what has become the culture of Missoula County not taking mail ballot fraud seriously,” Stapleton wrote.
While Stapleton has accused the county of voter fraud, he has not applied the duties of his office to investigate the matter, county officials said. Commissioners say there is nothing to investigate, since the rejected ballots were dismissed for legitimate reasons and are far less than the number of ballots rejected by other Montana counties.
During the special election, Missoula County rejected 35 ballots for being late, 13 for lacking a signature and two because they lacked the proper identification. Connors said 41 others were rejected due to mismatched signatures, something that can happen over time due to age and illness.
None of the 91 issues related to fraud, county officials said.
“We’re doing the same practices as all the other counties and following the letter of the law,” Connors said Thursday. “Unfortunately, (Stapleton) is taking this and using it as a platform to say fraud is rampant in Missoula.”
While Missoula County rejected 91 ballots, Yellowstone County rejected 528, Gallatin County 336 and Flathead County 207. Lewis and Clark County rejected 99.
Stapleton makes no mention of those numbers, leading county officials to believe that he’s attacking Missoula due to personal grudge and using false facts to push for his personal ambition to make changes to the state’s voting system.
“I would like answers to the questions on whether the 528 votes in Yellowstone are considered fraudulent as well, or is it just our 91 votes,” Commissioner Cola Rowley said. “It’s a legitimate question and he hasn’t answered it. You’re going to have elections where you reject ballots because that’s the correct thing to do when signatures don’t match. That’s how you do it.”
In his last letter, dated July 3, Stapleton again equated voter fraud to shoplifting and littering, and suggested that Missoula County had confirmed his point that it wasn’t taking voter fraud seriously.
He also maintained his stance that the 91 signatures were “illegal” and had been “silently set aside on the shelf of indifference.”
“I’m certainly willing to change the rules, legislation, to align enforcement with actual conduct,” Stapleton wrote. “If you claim there’s no fraud, or pooh-pooh what’s happening as clerical error or roommate mistakes, I’m not going to waste my time—I have plenty to do. Voter fraud isn’t something that inspires me.”
That last line left Missoula County officials scratching their head.
“I talked to his legal counsel who made it clear that Secretary Stapleton was trying to start dialogue to get legislative changes made in the 2019 legislative session,” said Deputy Missoula County Attorney Matt Jennings. “But any conversation about legislative changes needs to start with some accuracy on what occurred, and I’m concerned about the misleading statements from the secretary.”
This article originally appeared on Missoula Current, an independent online newspaper, of which Martin Kidston is the founding editor.