What is Secretary of State Corey Stapleton hiding? 

As Montana's secretary of state, Corey Stapleton has three jobs. The first is to remind the state of Montana to buy an anniversary present for its wife, Idaho. The second is to encourage commerce and record history; these two responsibilities have been the same thing since the advent of the Anaconda Mining Company. The third is to promote democracy. So far, Stapleton has done that the way mothers promote trampolines: by warning us of how it could go wrong.

In June, he announced that 360 fraudulent ballots had been cast in the special election between Greg Gianforte and Rob Quist. That's less than one percent of the 383,000 votes, but state Sen. Sue Malek, D-Missoula, took exception to Stapleton's allegations of fraud. She has repeatedly asked Stapleton to prove it, most recently in a letter requesting documentation of fraud at the Sept. 14 meeting of the State Administration and Veterans' Affairs Interim Committee.

Malek is not the only one to ask. The Associated Press and Lee newspapers have also filed formal requests that the Office of the Secretary of State provide evidence of voter fraud. Stapleton has not cooperated. Even as he has refused to provide proof of his claims, however, he has argued that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

He has been particularly critical of Missoula County, asserting in an email exchange with elections supervisor Rebecca Connors that her office is not taking fraud seriously. "Littering happens in public parks even when nobody is convicted of littering," he wrote. "Shoplifting occurs when nobody is convicted. Voter fraud continues in your county, whether you acknowledge it or not."

This is a thrilling position for the person in charge of election security to take. Littering happens even when nobody gets cited for it, but that doesn't mean voter fraud is as common as dropping gum wrappers on the ground.

During May's election, 91 ballots in Missoula County were rejected for having signatures that did not match the registrations on file. Only one was counted. According to Connors, it was an absentee ballot that had been sent to the wrong address and was subsequently removed.

None of these "fraudulent" ballots affected the final count, and none of them appeared to be intentional. Yet Stapleton, a Republican, seems bent on depicting routine errors as fraud. In this way, he resembles other members of his party.

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY YOUTUBE.COM
  • photo courtesy YouTube.com

Earlier this year, President Trump claimed that three million people voted illegally in the 2016 election. He has offered no proof. Last week, former Republican state legislator Art Wittich tweeted, "Voter fraud? What voter fraud?" and linked to a story about a Virginia college student and Democratic Party employee who completed 18 false registration forms. None of these forms were accepted.

It was fraud, but it didn't affect the election. The mismatched signatures in Missoula County weren't counted, either. I'm not sure why the man tasked with ensuring the security of Montana's elections would be so eager to convince people they've been tainted by fraud, but Stapleton's comments earlier this year give us an idea.

Shortly after he took office, he argued against a plan to conduct the May special election by mailnot because it was insecure, but because of how people would vote. "If you look at the three states that have done it ... Oregon, Washington and Colorado, they do all mail-in ballots and they're all marijuana-all-the-time states too," he said in a February hearing. "Is that what you want? Because that's what you're going to get."

That sounds like he's less concerned with voter fraud than with using his office to influence elections. An email exchange with Connors supports that idea. On July 3, he wrote, "I am concerned that there exists systemic risk of acquiescence or indifference in Missoula county with regard to all these ballots that are being cast out of conformity."

Stapleton's approach to written English obscures the meaning of that sentence, but one interpretation is that he's hunting for fraud in Missoula because the county tends to vote Democrat. I would be very concerned about voter fraud if Stapleton convinced me it was happening. So far, he has convinced me only that he wants people to think it is.

Now would be a good time for our secretary of state to show us one instance of fraud—not just ballots with weird signatures or absentee forms that went to the wrong address, but willful intent to deceive. If fraud is as much of a problem as he says it is, he should have no trouble providing an example. Until he does, Montanans should assume that he is mistaken—not lying, of course, but just wrong. That's an important difference. Maybe more than anyone in the state, Stapleton should appreciate it.

Dan Brooks writes about people, politics, culture, and the distinction between politics and government at combatblog.net.

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