County election officials criticized Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton Thursday morning for his repeated allegations of voter fraud, and for poor communication with them since taking office. County officials aired their grievances during a speech by Stapleton at a training session at the Montana Clerk and Recorder Convention in Fairmont.
The Secretary of State and county election officials have butted heads ever since Stapleton took office.
During the legislative session this winter, there were disagreements over proposed mail-in ballot legislation.
On Thursday, Stapleton told the 56 county election administrators that he no longer feels comfortable conducting elections under the state’s current system. He wants more study of rejected ballots and election security.
“We don’t have to be friends, but we should work together,” Stapleton said.
During his speech, he repeated concerns about potential fraud in state elections and said he wants county officials help improving the state’s election system.
County election officials countered that talk of possible fraud in Montana is weakening the integrity of state elections, which they say they’re confident in.
On Thursday, Stapleton’s office gave county officials a list of about 1,800 ballots from this May’s special election, asking them to explain why they were not counted, or were turned in with mismatched signatures, which the Secretary of State says could raise some concern.
But county officials say these kinds of rejected ballots represent a fraction of the overall voting population and do not imply criminal intent or fraud; saying many are likely due to a mistake, like a spouse’s signature appearing on their partner’s ballot.
Stapleton says the state needs to be more skeptical of voter fraud because it could be slipping through the state’s election system.
'We’ve got to acknowledge that if we live in a state that has never ... prosecuted and convicted voter fraud, then we might have a bias toward a system that doesn’t want to know that," Stapleton said. "That’s the point I try to make. I’m not trying to say that everything is rotted. I’ve never tried to say that. But what I'm saying is, you can’t rule that out."
Once during the Secretary’s presentation, county officials, in an outburst, challenged Stapleton’s knowledge of the system he was trying to change.
As an organization, members of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders have agreed to not publicly bad mouth the Secretary of State to the press, according to an county election administrator who spoke on the condition of not being identified.
The president of the clerks association told MTPR that county officials look forward to working with the Secretary of State and improving their communication.
But during Stapleton’s speech, voices in the crowd of clerks sprang up in criticism.
“All I know is, since February, I think, all of this stuff has just been crammed down my throat and never asked how can we work together to make this happen, until now, eight months later,” said one clerk in the crowd.
The secretary of state’s office did not grant MTPR an interview after the presentation Thursday, saying the Secretary was behind schedule after not expecting to speak so long at the convention.