HELENA – Members of a legislative panel Tuesday questioned Secretary of State Corey Stapleton over a mistake his office made in this year’s voter-information pamphlet – and the contract he approved to correct it.
Stapleton, a Republican, awarded the $265,000 contract in October to a Billings firm owned by Republican political consultant Jake Eaton.
Democrats on the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Committee asked whether a less-expensive option could have been chosen and why the mistake was made in the first place.
Stapleton said he chose the least-expensive option – if he wanted to get 470,000 voters the corrected information on ballot-measure language before they received absentee ballots in the mail.
“Yes, in the end, we had to pick somebody, but we picked the cheapest one, the one that was in the state and the one that would get it to the voters on time, because nobody else could,” he said. “Yes, the person who runs that (print shop) now is a friend of mine. … The point was, we did what was right for the voters.”
Some Democrats on the panel weren’t convinced and criticized the corrected mailer for not being clearly marked as a state document and having print that was abnormally small and difficult to read.
“There is no secretary of state stamp on this,” said Rep. Denise Hayman (D-Bozeman) holding up a copy of the mailed correction. “When I received this, I went, is this a joke? Is this one of those phony mailers that they’re trying to garner my support for something that’s not accurate? …
“I am very upset that I had constituents calling me and saying, `What is this? What do I do with this?’ That’s not good.”
Stapleton said he wasn’t happy with the mistake or the limited options he had for fixing it, but that his office did the best to get voters the correct information before they voted.
The original voter-information pamphlet, prepared by Stapleton’s office and mailed to 470,000 voters in late September, did not properly identify the language in state law that would be changed by a pair of ballot measures, Initiative 185 and Initiative 186.
Stapleton said he became aware of the mistake on Oct. 9 – three days before 400,000 absentee ballots would be mailed to voters, for early voting.
He also said opponents of I-186, which would have imposed new regulations on new hard-rock mines in Montana, told him the mistake could give them grounds for suing if the measure passed. Voters defeated both I-185 and I-186 in last week’s election.
Stapleton said the threat of the lawsuit and the upcoming absentee-ballot mailing convinced him he had to get a correction to voters as soon as possible.
The print shop owned by Eaton, Ultra Graphics, was the only one that could print the correction and get it in the mail within three days, he said. The shop also had to use what it had available for printing stock, he added.
Republicans on the committee noted that the cost for the correction came out of Stapleton’s office budget, which is funded by fees, rather than general taxpayer money.
-Mike Dennison reporting for MTN News