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Empty Charges Erode Trust in Montana Elections

Billings, Montana

After six months on the job, it’s about time Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton started doing his job.

Among the duties of the secretary of state, surely one of the most important is to ensure that Montana elections are conducted fairly and that votes are counted accurately. A good secretary of state would do everything in his power to accomplish those goals.

Whether because of ignorance, rank partisanship, a lack of understanding or a combination of all three, Stapleton has pursued a quite different tack, seemingly doing everything he can to make Montanans doubt the integrity of our elections.

He has done so by seizing on the minuscule number of rejected ballots in a single county—Missoula—in last November’s election and suggesting that they are evidence of widespread voter fraud. That charge, and the way he raised it, inspired Missoula County commissioners to write a joint letter to Stapleton, calling his actions “juvenile” and “unprofessional.”

That was earlier this month. Last week, Stapleton upped the ante by waving the banner of voter fraud again, this time in testimony before an interim legislative committee. He told the committee that 360 ballots rejected statewide because of mismatched signatures—out of 383,000 cast in the special congressional election in May—were evidence that voter fraud could be more widespread than is generally acknowledged.

It is telling that Stapleton’s spat with the Missoula County elections supervisor began last February, after she wrote to urge Stapleton to stop lobbying against a bill that would have allowed counties to conduct the special congressional election exclusively by mail-in balloting, saving $750,000 statewide.

This was the bill, you may recall, that Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, the state GOP chairman, urged his fellow Republicans to reject, even though it had been sponsored by a Republican, Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls.

Why? Because, as Essmann said in an “Emergency Chairman’s Report” to party members, all-mail ballots gave Democrats an advantage in close races “due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door.”

Essmann, following the script later used by Stapleton, went on to raise allegations of voter fraud, saying those Democratic operatives were not only gathering ballots but throwing away those filled out by voters they perceived as Republicans.

That was too much for another Republican House member, Geraldine Custer of Forsyth, who also happened to have run elections in Rosebud County for 36 years.

“The fear mongering about the integrity of Montana’s elections needs to stop,” she wrote in a guest editorialin the Billings Gazette. “There have been no confirmed cases of voter fraud in Big Sky Country.”

Stapleton acknowledged the truth of that assertion, but still wrote to the Missoula County elections supervisor: “Littering happens in public parks even when nobody is convicted of littering. Shoplifting occurs when nobody is convicted. Voter fraud continues in your county, whether you acknowledge it or not.”

In all this, of course, Stapleton sounds an awful lot like President Trump, whose allegations of voter fraud have been as unfounded as they are outrageous. It was bad enough to have to deal with this nonsense on the national level. It is even more discouraging to see it playing out here in Montana.

In covering dozens of elections over the years, I have always been impressed by how quickly, fairly and amicably every dispute has been settled. Consider the election of 2006.

First, then-Elections Administrator Duane Winslow pushed the wrong buttons on his vote-counting machines on election night, necessitating a hand-recount of every single ballot and delaying a final tally until early the next morning.

The eyes of the nation were on Yellowstone County because the votes here would determine whether Jon Tester would unseat incumbent U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns (he did), and whether Democrats or Republicans would control the Senate.

I wrote a package of stories a few weeks after the election, talking to state and national experts about the integrity of Montana elections, and how Montana compared to other states. Here’s one thing I wrote about that recount: “It may have been a long night, but nobody questioned the results the next morning.”

In that same election, a Laurel House race ended in a tie—and the outcome of that race, coincidentally, would determine whether Democrats or Republicans controlled the state House.

There was another hand recount, which resulted in the Republican, Krayton Kerns, beating out the Democrat, Emelie Eaton, by three votes. Here’s an excerpt from my story on that recount: “Eaton confessed to ‘a certain amount of disappointment’ but said she was satisfied with the recount, which she called a trustworthy and very public process.”

That was in 2006. It wasn’t exactly a golden age of bipartisanship, but I was struck by how both sides were willing to accept results in hugely important races with so little doubt or bitterness. Both sides seem to have understood that trust in the elections process was at least as important as the outcome of those elections.

With Trump, Essmann, Stapleton and countless others challenging that trust again and again, with never a shred of evidence, how long will that shared understanding survive?

At some point, love of country has to supersede loyalty to party. Trump likes to talk about “America first.” How about “Americans first”?

This piece first appeared in Last Best News.

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Ed Kemmick lives in Billings, Montana and edits LastBestNews.com

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