I. In Focus This Week
Some Montana counties survey rejected ballots
By M. Mindy Moretti
Following the May special election, recently installed Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton had questions and concerns about rejected mail ballots.
Were ballots rejected because voters made legitimate mistakes, or was there something more nefarious at play with the original submission of the ballots?
In August Stapleton asked county elections officials to survey rejected ballots and try to determine, as best as they could, why voters did not properly submit their ballots in the first place and why some of those voters chose not to remedy the situation after they were contacted by their county elections office.
Many Montana counties — but not all — set out to answer Stapleton’s questions and concerns.
One, the rejected ballot process works and two signature issues occur within the household, Connors explained. A family member would sign on behalf of someone else by either recreating the voter's signature, signing with their own signature with an explanation they were signing on the voter's behalf or signing by power of attorney, which, she pointed out, has no bearing in Montana election law.
“However, we didn't know if some of these signatures were accidental or intentional - we were able to gain more of the voter's perspective with this survey,” Connors said. “For instance, some of the responses included: ‘I sign my spouse's name on checks and I never had an issue.’ Or, ‘I give my son my debit card and pin number and ask him to run to the store for me, what's the difference?’ Voters are asking family members to be an extension of themselves in other areas in life and expect for the same to happen in elections. Their perspective was new to us.”
Missoula County had 91 rejected ballots from the special election. Of those, 35 were late, 13 had no signature, two had no ID and 41 had signature mismatches.
The survey took county staff roughly 40 days to complete. Additional costs were minimal and included a dedicated staff member and materials.
“We took the questions the secretary of state [provided] and made them quantitative to better understand the data,” Connors explained. “Our dedicated staff member made phone calls during office hours as well as during the evenings when it might be a better time to reach people. Those who did not return our phone call were visited to see if we could reach them in person.”
By making the original survey questions more quantitative, Connors said her office was able to learn that late ballots were often late because voters mailed them from another state. The office also discovered that many elderly voters whose ballots are rejected often lack the technology to resolve their ballot electronically and may face challenges to appear in person.
“We're going to look at ways to better help them resolve signature issues, such as sending a staff member to them,” Connors said.
Although Connors’ days in the Missoula election office are coming to an end — she’s moving — she said she would encourage anyone coming in or in other counties to take a more intensive look at rejected ballots.
“Rejected ballots should not be overlooked,” she said. “This is a great opportunity to connect with voters and educate them on the importance of their signature since election law cannot translate into the other areas of life they may be using signatures. It's also a great opportunity to update a voter's signature on file to prevent future instances of rejection. We scan in any forms or signature updates to the voter's profile to help with future elections.”
The secretary of state’s office seems to agree with Connors on the importance of rejected ballots and has created the 2017 Mail Ballot Improvement Project.
“[A] working group consisting of clerks and the office of the Montana Secretary of State was formed to study and learn from the results,” explained Laura Nelson, communications and marketing director for the secretary of state’s office. “The Secretary of State will publish those results later in December together with the recommendations of the working group and how these efforts improve elections in Montana.”
Ruth Baker, clerk & recorder/clerk of district court/election administrator for Treasure County is also the current president of the Montana Clerks Association said that Treasure County did participate in the survey and even though she only had one rejected ballot to review, the review was worth it.
“What I learned is we need to better educate the voter on mailing their ballot back to us in a timely manner,” Baker said.
While she believes that voters need to be better educated about the process, she doesn’t necessarily believe it should require legislation.
“I don't believe a law requiring a survey is necessary,” Baker said. “We work hard to make sure every vote is counted, and there are just some ballots, that unfortunately, don't get counted. More education for the voter: Sign your ballot envelope, mail it in time, and sign your own ballot.”
Not all counties participated in the process though. Yellowstone County, the state’s largest county in population, did not survey their special election rejected ballot voters because they were conducting municipal primary and general elections at the time and according to Election Administrator Bret Rutherford, had already contacted every voter with a rejected ballot by mail and many by phone.
Rutherford said he would not recommend rejected-ballot surveys becoming law or part of the standard post-election process.
In Flathead County, they didn’t conduct a post-election survey in the same manner that Missoula County did, but Clerk and Recorder Manager Monica Eisenzimer said the county was able to learn quite a bit when they did their initial outreach to voters whose ballots were rejected.
The county had 27 affirmation ballot envelopes were signed by the spouse of the voter, 20 were signed by a style of signature different than the one on file showing a much larger percentage than in the general election where only 8 envelopes were rejected for signature mismatches and 44 were left unsigned, half as many as in the general election of 2016.
“…[V]oters are on the move, make mistakes and that as much as we want to be able to verify, accept and count every ballot that is submitted, our process is working in that those mismatched signatures or no signature ballots that are not accepted and are not being allowed to be counted,” Eisenzimer said.
Eisenzimer said it’s possible that Flathead County will add another level of verification and reconciliation to the rejected ballot process. She would also support some or additional legislative or codified process for rejected ballots.
“Yes, so that voters really understand how important it is to pay close attention to the instructions for casting their absentee ballot,” Eisenzimer said.
Even though the 2017 Mail Ballot Improvement Project working group has not released its results, Nelson said it does not seem likely that the state will seek a legislative solution rejected mail ballots.
“One of the missions of the Montana Secretary of State is to promote democracy while striving for continuous improvement. This office and the offices of election administrators in Montana in conjunction with the working group are committed to working together voluntarily to make sure that in Montana, every vote matters,” Nelson said. “As a result of this, there is no need to pursue legislation.”
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