By BOB ANEZ Associated Press Writer
HELENA - A Democratic candidate for secretary of state said Thursday that state elections officials have created confusion over how some absentee ballots are handled and cast doubt on whether secret ballots are truly secret.
Jon Ellingson, one of five candidates running for the office, said the secretary of state's office should clarify its position on how mailed ballots are processed when it appears a voter's required identification was mistakenly put in the same ''secrecy envelope'' as the ballot.
He said the office first told county election administrators that, in such cases, they could open the envelopes before Election Day to ensure the proper identification was included. Then the office sent another memo telling the officials they first needed voter permission before unsealing the ballot envelope.
Still, voters are left with an unacceptable choice, Ellingson said. They either give up their right to a cast a secret ballot or run the risk of having their vote not counted for failing to provide proper identification, he said.
''I call on Secretary of State (Bob) Brown to clarify his position now, before the primary, so that our citizens and election officers will know how they should treat absentee ballots,'' he said.
Mike Sullivan, spokesman for Brown, said that is not necessary. The process for handling absentee ballots with misplaced or missing voter identification has been spelled out in workshops and training sessions, a May 25 memo to election administrators, state law and regulations adopted by the secretary of state's office, he said.
''This thing has been blown out of proportion,'' Sullivan said.
Absentee ballots make up only 10 percent to 15 percent of all those cast and officials expect few people using them will insert their identification in the wrong envelope, he said. ''We expect only a handful will make the mistake.''
Sullivan also dismissed Ellingson's contention that the process allows the secrecy of ballots to be violated. The only people handling the ballots are officials sworn to maintain the confidentiality of ballots, he said.
Ellingson said the potential problems with absentee ballots are a result of the GOP-controlled 2003 Legislature enacting a Brown-supported mandate that all Montanans have identification in order to vote.
''It is a tragedy and a scandal that we're taking our democracy in this direction,'' Ellingson said.
He urged Brown, who is a candidate for governor, to support repeal of the voter ID requirement. Sullivan said Brown is unlikely to do that.