Three weeks ago, Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton sent a letter to the president of the county clerks' association, announcing that he was no longer pushing to launch a new voter registration system in 2020.
County elections officials had voiced "grave concerns" about rushing to implement a new software system in a presidential election year. So Stapleton was right to back away from a hurried roll out that risked glitches in the busiest year of the elections cycle.
"The whole association is extremely excited with the decision to wait and not to roll it out in the 2020 election," Richland County Clerk Stephanie Verhasselt told Holly Michels of Lee Montana Newspapers last week. "We do believe when the new system comes out, once we get it working and everyone trained, I think it will have a lot of features we like." Vaerhasselt, president of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders, shared Stapleton's change of course with the organization's members throughout Montana.
Other states are using their federal election security grants to update systems before 2020. Montana was the last of the 50 states to submit its plan, and Stapleton waited months more before publicly sharing his plan for the state's $3 million grant. He allocated about $2 million to a no-bid contract for a new statewide registration system, even though many county officials recommended more spending on county voting equipment replacement.
Stapleton took more time than any other state to make a plan and then contracted with a vendor that he says may not be able to deliver on the schedule Stapleton expected. His letter to Verhasselt says:
"Our vendor's workload is strained as they complete work in Arizona and Washington state with projects that began before our project. The division of labor between states is common, for sure, but it does take away from the full potential of resources that could be used for Montana in 2019." Stapleton noted that Montana would be wise to adopt "lessons learned" from Washington's new voter registration system.
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"Even if all 56 clerks and SOS are fully on board, fully trained and ready to go, we cannot move forward this year if our vendor doesn't have the capacity to deliver the system," Stapleton wrote.
This week, the clerks, recorders and elections administrators from Montana's 56 counties are in Billings for the association's annual convention. Stapleton was a no show. At least 10 staffers from the SOS office attended election training sessions Tuesday morning, including Christi Jacobsen, Stapleton's deputy secretary of state and Dana Corson, elections director. The elected secretary of state has traditionally attended these meetings as the state's chief elections officer. This is the first time in memory that the SOS, including Stapleton in years past, didn't personally participate.
The Gazette asked Jacobsen and Corson where Stapleton was Tuesday. According them, he was working in Helena with plans to "reach out" to western Montana counties later in the week. Asked why Stapleton chose not to attend the clerks' convention, Jacobsen said this western Montana tour had been planned for months and he has other duties than elections.
It is odd that the chief elections official would skip the opportunity to meet and address elections officials from every county, especially because Billings is Stapleton's hometown. It is surprising that an announced candidate for statewide office — U.S. House — would decline an opportunity to appear at a statewide convention. Montanans must wonder what was so important this week that Stapleton couldn't come to Billings to answer questions and provide information about how his office is preparing for elections.
Stapleton's tenure as SOS has been remarkable for his opposition to election legislation requested by counties. For example, Stapleton opposed legislation that would give large population counties the option of starting their mail ballot processing and secure tabulation earlier, so complete election results will be available sooner after polls close. Fortunately, Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, sponsored that legislation, which became law this spring. The clerks honored Webb Tuesday. Thanks to Webb for his leadership on the new law that will help county workers do the best job possible for their voters.