Corey Stapleton

Secretary of State Cory Stapleton addresses House lawmakers in January morning during the first day of Montana’s 65th Legislative Session at the State Capitol in Helena.

THOM BRIDGE, Independent Record

If there's one thing that we can agree with Secretary of State Corey Stapleton about, it's that his office should be investigating fraud.

We don't just mean that if there is evidence of fraud that his office should be leading the charge against it; Stapleton should be held responsible for perpetuating a political hoax at the expense of undermining Montana's electoral process. 

Some things that should be beyond partisan gamesmanship. Confidence in Montana's election process should be one of those sacred, off-limits topics which should be agenda-free.

Blaming Montana media

Stapleton has instead used his position as Montana's chief elections officer to undermine Montana's confidence in voting and then, when his own unsubstantiated views are debunked, he can do nothing more than blame the media for his own political shenanigans and petty games. 

Let's explain: Stapleton, following a popular conservative ploy nationwide, jumped on the "voter fraud" bandwagon. In testimony to an interim legislative committee he called into question why there were no cases of voter fraud in Montana, and then said that more than 300 ballots cast during the state's Special Election for Congress were illegal.

When a reporter followed up on that number with Stapleton, he pegged the number of illegal (his word, not ours) ballots at 360, and also raised the question of whether they were counted.

And so that the reporting, done by the Associated Press, Lee Montana Newspapers and The Billings Gazette, remained part of the unchallenged record since the meeting on July 20.

On Thursday, nearly two months later, Stapleton was asked to appear again before the State Administration and Veterans Affairs Interim Committee to clarify and update those shocking numbers.

Skipping SAVA meeting

Instead of appearing in person, Stapleton decided to send his chief of staff. He didn't have the courage or conviction of his apparently strongly held beliefs to explain to the committee that those numbers (as many as 360) were wildly misleading. We feel sorry for Stapleton's chief of staff, who had to read a letter riddled with grammatical errors. He blamed the entire issue on the media and misreporting. He even went so far as to say that he had reached out to editors to correct the stories after they appeared. His chief of staff named The Billings Gazette specifically as one of the media organizations he reached out to.

Yet the editors at The Gazette have no record of being contacted. Furthermore, neither The Gazette nor the Associated Press ever printed a correction on the stories. 

When Stapleton visited The Gazette editorial board on Aug. 18, almost a month after the stories appeared, he complained of inaccuracies in the stories, but failed to give one concrete example, saying that it wasn't his job to correct a reporter's story. When asked why he wouldn't want citizens to have the correct information if there was indeed errors, he again asserted that his job isn't to talk to reporters.

Throughout reporting on Stapleton and the issue of voter fraud in Montana, reporters with this organization and other media have called him for comment and explanation. We've done that because it's not only sound journalistic practice, but also because Stapleton, in his elected position, should be the authority on the subject. Sadly, Stapleton has a long track record of not returning phone calls, and then complaining loudly when he doesn't like something in the press. In fact, in an August editorial that was critical of how he was using the "voter fraud" issue for political points, The Gazette reached out for comment and clarification before drafting an editorial. Those calls, which we made sure were received because we talked to an assistant to assure that he got the message, went unanswered.

In short, we have continuously given Stapleton the opportunity to comment, clarify and correct. He simply refuses.

That leads us to believe Stapleton has used this issue of voter fraud to undermine confidence to score political points. When he was unable to justify his numbers or rhetoric, he blames an easy scapegoat, the media, which plays well to the same group that also yearns to believe in voter fraud. 

No fraud in Missoula

We'd point out the three cases that his chief of staff cited as “fraud” at Thursday’s committee meeting have not been substantiated. In fact, Committee Chairwoman Sen. Sue Malek reported that investigation of the alleged fraud case in Missoula yielded no evidence of crime, according to the Missoula County attorney. Fraud requires proving the intent to deceive. Ballots weren’t counted because they were turned in late, had no signatures or signatures that didn't match the voter’s signature on file at the county elections office. Maybe evidence of sloppiness, but certainly not fraud.

Stapleton by his actions has undermined the system he was elected to protect. He seems proud to disseminate misinformation and then refuses to correct it. Finally, he makes accusations against the media that are unsubstantiated.

There is fraud, Mr. Stapleton, and it's been perpetuated by you on the citizens of Montana when you've given them a reason not to trust the results of a free and open election. This is nothing more than a farce, designed to incense lawmakers who will then take steps to make voting unnecessarily difficult which would have the effect of disenfranchising entire blocs of voters.