Following the May 25th, 2017 special congressional election in Montana, the Office of the Secretary of State was notified that two victims of voter fraud had come forward and had asked for assistance. In both cases, the victim’s mail ballot had been taken by an unauthorized person, voted, signed, and mailed back to a local election administrator. There was considerable inconsistency in the manner these two separate cases were handled by local law enforcement and election officials. Additionally, the Commissioner of Political Practices, whose office has jurisdiction over voter misconduct and fraud, was never notified in either case.
Concerned that additional voters may have been victims of voter misconduct without knowing their ballot had been compromised, Secretary Stapleton asked for a top-down review of Montana’s mail ballot system. In August, the Office of the Secretary of State in conjunction with the 56 county Election Administrators, began conducting a Survey of the uncounted ballots from the special election. The goal of the Survey was to better understand why so many ballots had been unsigned, mailed too late, or signed by someone other than the voter. It was also to provide a foundation for making informed recommendations of improvement. (Our challenge: how do we maintain systemic election integrity when thousands of mailed ballots leave the custody of election officials for up to thirty days?) In the May statewide special election, 1,833 mail ballots had been voted but not counted. This number of uncounted ballots was considerably larger than the 1,158 ballots which had not counted in the previous statewide election just six months prior (November 2016). All 1,833 voters whose ballot did not count were attempted to be contacted by either their local county administrator or by the Secretary of State’s office. The results of the 2017 Mail Ballot Improvement Project can be found at www.sos.mt.gov/elections.
Of particular importance were the 363 mail ballots that had ‘mismatched’ or illegal signatures on them. Of these, 38 were confirmed to be family member signatures. Many of those family members, upon being contacted during the Survey, acknowledged they had intentionally signed another family member’s ballot. This is against current Montana statute. Upon completion of the Survey in December, analyses supports there does not appear to be widespread, coordinated, or geographical clustering of mismatched signatures during the 2017 Montana special election. At the time of this report, while there are still active law enforcement investigations into voter fraud being conducted, the context of these fraud cases is that they are unrelated with each other and represent a small fraction of the 383,000 votes cast in the May election. Still, we have much room for improvement. A working group was formed around the 2017 Mail Ballot Improvement Project, and met for several hours on December 5, 2017. Numerous recommendations resulted from the completed Survey.
Since the goal of the 2017 Mail Ballot Improvement Project is to reduce the number of uncounted ballots in future statewide elections, there is real opportunity to showcase these improvements during the 2018 statewide elections. There was consensus amongst the working group for these improvements: Better training of ballot signature verification for election administrators, public awareness through public service announcements regarding mail ballot rules and laws, design simplification of ballot envelopes to reduce potential confusion, and better communications between the Election Administrators, the Office of the Secretary of State, and the Commissioner of Political Practices. All in all, the 2017 Mail Ballot Improvement Project was insightful and critical in better understanding Montana’s voting system. Stay tuned for future developments and continuous improvements as we strive to increase both the number of ballots being counted and the integrity of our overall statewide elections.