By Alex Ross 

Secretary of State Stapleton visits, talks in Havre area


Havre Daily News/Floyd Brandt

Montana Secretary of State Cory Stapleton speaks Thursday at the Duck Inn Vineyard Room during a meeting of the Pachyderm Club. Stapleton is touring the state and stayed in the area a few days, visiting and speaking at locations in the area including Northern Montana Hospital, U.S. Border Patrol facilities and Havre High School. At the Pachyderm Club meeting, Stapleton answered questions about the upcoming congressional special election and the mail-in ballot. He said that at Havre High School, students asked questions and expressed concerns about the rising national debt.

In an interview while in Havre Thursday, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said his office as well as county clerk and recorders throughout the state are prepared for next week's special election to fill Montana's only seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"We are ready, the counties are ready, and it's really been quiet, which is good. We don't want to have any issues," Stapleton said.

Stapleton was in Havre Wednesday and Thursday as part of his office's Things that Matter tour, an effort by Stapleton to visit all 56 counties in the course of the next four years to get input as to how his office can better serve Montanans, he said.

Wednesday, Stapleton spoke to students at Havre High and toured several area sites such as Northern Montana Hospital and Montana State University-Northern.

Thursday he was scheduled to make stops at the Hill County Clerk and Recorder's Office, meet with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol officials and speak before the Pachyderm Club.

Next Thursday's election will determine who will fill the U.S. House seat vacated by Ryan Zinke who resigned in March to serve as President Donald Trump's Interior secretary.

Democrat Rob Quist, Republican Greg Gianforte and Libertarian Mark Wicks are all competing to succeed Zinke in the May 25 election.

Stapleton said he is a little worried given the scheduling in the placement of the election on a Thursday and before Memorial Day weekend.

He said his office has run public service announcements reminding Montanans the election will be Thursday.

Stapleton said he hopes more than 50 percent of voters turn out. He said turnout will likely be less than the turnout in the last election, but more than in a primary election.

He said roughly half of the mail ballots sent out have been turned in to his office, adding there is a delay in reporting for some offices. Sometimes the counties don't turn in ballots for three or four days after they receive them, Stapleton said, which is why the state's tally of absentee ballots are not updated on a daily basis.

Stapleton was an opponent of an effort in the last Legislature to allow a mail ballot in the special election. The legislation initially passed the Senate but died in the House Judiciary Committee. A coalition of House Democrats and moderate Republicans then tried to blast it to the House floor unsuccessfully.

When Gov. Steve Bullock issued an amendatory veto on an unrelated election bill that would have allowed counties the option to conduct the election by mail ballot, Speaker Austin Knudsen R-Culbertson, did not bring the bill to the floor, killing the effort. An attempt to pass it without bringing it to the floor for discussion failed.

Stapleton himself spoke out against the bill, despite vocal support for it from county clerk, and recorders across the state including from Blaine, Hill, Liberty and Chouteau counties, who said it would save them money on an election they did not budget for.

Stapleton said he was running the election the way his predecessors did, using polling places absentee ballots and satellite voting offices on Indian reservations.

He said removing all the election judges could save money, but it would just feed into the idea of voter fraud and lack of transparency,

"And I just think that eliminating 200, 300 or 400 judges isn't in our best interest. I like having local control and local oversight, and that costs more money," he said. He added that the state shouldn't run the cheapest elections but the best elections.

He said all the counties would likely opt for mail ballot, which could then open the state up to lawsuits.

In 2015, Montana purged 52,000 inactive voters from the state voter rolls

"Dead people, people with forwarding addresses. students what happens to those ballots? You assume they get thrown away, maybe they get forwarded," he said.

Stapleton said he does not worry about voter fraud, and if it does exist, it would be taken care of at the local level.

"My concern as secretary of state is more systemic threats, so I look at the big picture," he said.

He said the county clerks do a good job, and most have ample experience in overseeing elections in their respective counties.

Stapleton said in-person voter fraud happens for a reason but most often it does for reasons that are explainable. He gave the hypothetical of Bob, 83 who was mailed an absentee ballot and returns it, then he goes out to vote at a polling place because he forgets that he already voted.

"So do you really want to prosecute that as in person voter fraud? A lot of clerks, especially in a small county they know Bob, so they deal with it," he said.

In the last five years, 20 cases of fraud have been called into the Montana Secretary of State's Office, he said.


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