HELENA — Fraudulent signatures have been submitted to at least four counties for a ballot initiative targeting outfitter sponsored nonresident hunting licenses, county elections offices have found.
Officials say the same person turned in fraudulent signatures in Cascade, Chouteau and Blaine counties, while Hill County has a petition from that person, but has not begun verifying signatures.
Yellowstone County elections clerk Susan Patton said Friday that county has one petition with nearly 200 signatures, and only 20 have been found to be valid so far. The handwriting is the same on the remaining signatures and the addresses are false. The person who turned in the petition also gave a false address, she said.
The fraudulent signatures were first discovered by clerks in Blaine and Chouteau counties, as they compared petition signatures to those on voter registration cards.
Blaine County received a petition with one valid signature, followed by 17 forged signatures — in alphabetical order, with addresses as they're listed in the phone book — County Attorney Don Ranstrom said Friday. Residents of Chinook get their mail at the post office.
"We believe the person just went down the phone book and picked out people at random," Ranstrom told The Associated Press.
Deputy Cascade County Attorney Carey Ann Shannon said the county elections officials heard about the potential fraud from election clerks in Chouteau and Blaine counties and started checking petitions turned in in Great Falls.
Ranstrom said the two people who did sign the Chouteau County petition did so at a gun show in Great Falls, while the one valid Blaine County signature was also obtained in Great Falls on the same day.
The author of the ballot initiative, Kurt Kephart of Billings, told Lee Newspapers of Montana on Thursday that he believes a paid signature gatherer turned in the false signatures in Cascade County.
"I'm sure it's an election fraud," Kephart said. "I want him prosecuted."
Kephart did not return a phone message Friday seeking comment on the falsified signatures in the other counties.
Ranstrom said he and Chouteau County Attorney Steve Gannon expect to charge the paid signature gatherer with tampering with public records or information.
I-161 sought to abolish outfitter-sponsored nonresident big game and deer combination licenses and replace them with 5,500 general nonresident big game licenses and increase the costs of nonresident hunting licenses.
June 18 was the deadline for initiative sponsors to turn in their signatures to county election officials. Officials must verify the signatures and turn in their totals to the secretary of state's office by July 16. I-161 needs at least 24,337 signatures of registered Montana voters, including 5 percent of the voters in 34 of the 100 state House districts.
Patton said Yellowstone County has at least one nine-page petition to turn over to the county attorney's office for possible prosecution.
"A lot of people think there's just no way that we check these signatures," Patton said. "We have to look at every one."