Over the course of a decade and more than 7 million ballots cast in Montana, an elections expert found just one instance of illegal voting, he told a judge Tuesday.
Kenneth Mayer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was testifying in a bench trial in a lawsuit brought by the Montana Democratic Party and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Mayer said that between 2006 and 2016, there were 7,079,953 absentee or mail ballots cast in Montana elections, state data show.
In that time frame, there was just one confirmed case of illegal voting. A Liberty County man in 2011 filled out and submitted his ex-wife’s absentee ballot in a school board election without her permission.
Mayer uncovered two additional allegations that a voter’s ballot had been completed by someone else, but he said there was no evidence to prove it actually happened.
The Democratic groups are suing Secretary of State Corey Stapleton over the Ballot Interference Prevention Act, which limits the practice of collecting completed ballots from voters to return to the elections office.
The law, passed as a voter referendum in 2018, originated after Sen. Al Olszweski, R-Kalispell, reported receiving complaints from two constituents about “pushy” ballot collectors coming to their homes.
The measure was pitched as a safeguard against voter fraud. It put a stop to unstaffed ballot drop boxes elections administrators used to collect ballots, as well as organized ballot collection efforts. The plaintiffs say both can make the difference between someone voting or not voting.
The ballot collection law is facing a parallel challenge in a lawsuit by advocacy group Western Native Voice and five tribal governments. A ruling in that case is still pending.
The cases in Yellowstone County are among several legal battles underway across the U.S. in response to voting regulations some groups see as disenfranchising.
The litigation comes as President Donald Trump and others have continued to push baseless claims of widespread voting fraud ahead of the November election.
In addition to challenging the ballot collection law, the Democrats in trial this week argue that two longstanding voting deadlines in Montana create too big a burden for voters: the 8 p.m. Election Day deadline for most absentee ballots to be received, and the 5 p.m. deadline on the day after Election Day for ballot errors such as a missing signature to be corrected.
The plaintiffs are asking the court to find that the ballot collection law and both deadlines violate the Montana Constitution.
The deadline challenges raise the prospect of more frequent elections for which the outcome isn’t immediately known.
Plaintiffs called an elections administrator from Washington, which shifted to absentee voting in 2011. Mary Hall, the chief elections officer for Thurston County, Washington, said it’s not uncommon for early results to flip in the days after an election as more ballots get counted.
“I think Washington state and our media is used to not calling races,” said Mary Hall, the chief elections officer for Thurston County, Washington.
In 19 states, the deadline for absentee ballots is based on the postmark date, and not the date it arrives at the elections office, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Montana Democratic Party and the DSCC advocate for a postmark deadline.
More ballots will be cast by mail this fall due to the coronavirus pandemic. But changes at the U.S. Postal Service have prompted concerns that ballots won’t arrive in time.
Those changes made by new postmaster general Louis DeJoy have come with complaints of slowed mail delivery.
Attorneys for the state argue that the ballot collection law is worthwhile because it prevents voter fraud and promotes public trust in the elections system.
They say voters have no constitutional right to allow another person to return their ballot or to have it returned after Election Day.
The state's attorneys note the postal service will still deliver a ballot if it is missing a stamp, resulting in a charge to the elections office. And on Election Day, postal workers are instructed to separate any ballots they collect and bring them to the elections office that day. That’s instead of the normal process of sending incoming mail to a regional sorting center, which takes more than a day to reroute out to the destination and would result in the ballots not being counted.
The state is represented by Assistant Attorneys General Aislinn Brown, Hannah Tokerud and Stuart Segrest.
The plaintiffs are represented by Matthew Gordon, of Perkins Coie LLP, an international law firm also representing Democrats in similar legal battles in other states. Helena attorney Mike Meloy is also on the case.
Most voters in Montana vote absentee. Turnout has increased over the years as absentee voting has increased.