Voter fraud or clerical error? One Missoula County ballot questioned in congressional election

Missoula County rejected 91 absentee ballots because of signature issues in the May 25 special congressional election. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula County attorneys and election officials traded jabs with Secretary of State Corey Stapleton Friday over whether a rejected ballot in the May 25 congressional election constituted voter fraud or a clerical error.

Stapleton started the exchange with a news release contending that “mail ballot voter fraud occurred in Missoula County during the congressional special election. The case involved signature forgery on a mail-in ballot.”

He did not provide details of the incident, but he did chide Missoula officials.

“We’ve had mail ballot security issues in Missoula now for two consecutive election cycles,” Stapleton said. “Our office takes this matter seriously.”

Missoula County was quick to respond, initially with a two-part statement on Twitter: “In response to MT SOS: Our office is 100% transparent and detailed the clerical error to County Canvass Board and SOS. 1/2”

Then: “Issue is not viewed as voter fraud, but as a clerical error. Elections are held to a high standard, and we work hard to keep it high. 2/2”

Shortly thereafter, Chief Deputy County Attorney Jason Marks issued a statement explaining what happened and how the incident is being handled, as well as responding to Stapleton’s dig at the Missoula election office.

“Missoula County takes allegations of voter fraud very seriously,” Marks said. “However, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s implication that there are pervasive ballot security issues in Missoula County is misleading.”

Marks said that 47,159 ballots were cast in Missoula County during the May congressional election. “To the best of Missoula County’s knowledge,” he added, “there was only one report of a voting irregularity involving a single absentee ballot.”

In that case, a woman called the election office and said that, although records showed she had cast an absentee ballot, she had not voted.

The signature on the suspect ballot was not that of the woman, although it was similar. The woman told election officials that she lives in an apartment building and that the mail is sometimes delivered to the wrong box.

The ballot was rejected.

“The Montana Secretary of State’s Office is deeming voter fraud occurred in Missoula County,” election officials said in a post Friday on the county’s Missoula Votes Facebook page. “We see the incident as a clerical error by accepting an absentee ballot with a signature that did not match the record of the voter’s. We reject many signatures each election to ‘signature mis-matches,’ but we missed this one. When humans are involved in any process, it subjects the process to human error.”

In all, Missoula County election officials rejected 91 absentee ballots received for the May 25 election because of signature issues, the election office reported. Those ballots were never counted toward the vote total, and were not considered fraudulent.

As soon as the woman in the single instance reported the matter to local election officials, they began an investigation and notified the Secretary of State, Marks said in his statement.

“To suggest that there are serious ballot security issues based upon an isolated incident is simply inaccurate and a disservice to the public,” Marks said.

The Missoula County Sheriff’s Office will investigate the incident.

“Violations of election laws are a misdemeanor criminal offense,” Marks added. “The Missoula County Attorney’s Office stands ready to prosecute any instances of voter fraud if a suspect is identified through a criminal investigation.”

As for Stapleton’s assertion that Missoula County had a similar ballot issue in the last election – which would have been last November’s general election, Marks said that did not occur.

“Since County Attorney (Kirsten) Pabst has been in office, our office has received only one other report of possible voter fraud, in May of 2016, once again involving a single ballot,” Marks said.

The sheriff’s office investigated that incident as well, but a suspect was never identified.

Stapleton and other Montana Republican Party leaders oppose the use of mail-in ballots because they believe the practice encourages voter fraud. GOP legislators scuttled an attempt to have May’s special congressional election conducted via mail-in ballots, over the objections of most county election officials.

Missoula County election officials were adamant in defending their processes after Stapleton’s attack on Friday.

“This will not deter us from continuing to conduct elections in Missoula County with such a high standard,” the Missoula Votes web post said. “Ballot security and process are paramount to conducting sound elections, and we will continue to strengthen and uphold elections in Missoula County.”

Added County Attorney Kirsten Pabst, in a comment on the Facebook post: “One stolen ballot does not ‘pervasive voter fraud’ make. We are so proud of the work of our elections office, which sets the standard.”