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Political Texts Test Montana Campaign Practices Laws

A screen shot of a recent political text message sent to phones in Montana
Corin Cates-Carney
A screen shot of a recent political text message sent to phones in Montana

Fifty-six thousand Montanans recently got a text from the political committee supporting ballot issue I-186, which would tighten regulations on the mining industry. The group that sent out those messages said they were not "robo-texts," although a messaging app helped send them out.

“This year, particularly in the last week and a half, we have received more calls and emails on this issue than I believe this office ever has," said Jeff Mangan, Montana’s Commissioner of Political Practices. Mangan is the state’s top political cop, his office monitors and enforces campaign practices and financial disclosure laws.

Mangan’s office accepted a formal complaint about the texts from opponents of I-186’s, and determined the pro-I-186 group "Yes for Responsible Mining" didn’t provide the public with enough information about who was paying for the texts that went out.

“If candidates and committees are going to choose to text folks, and are paying for it, those are electioneering communications. They need to be sure they comply with Montana's attribution law and that attribution is available to the public," Mangan said. 

Yes for Responsible mining’s texts did mention who they were and what they supported, but it didn’t include all of the financial disclosure information usually required.

The COPP says the group is working with the office and coming into compliance with the law.

Montana law is clear that when there is political communication put in front of voters there needs to be financial disclosure.

But Magan says it’s not under his authroity to determine whether the texts violated a federal law that bans automated, or “robo" calls and texts.

Backers of I-186 say the 56,000 text messages they sent were not sent via automation.

Montana law bans robo-calls, but was written before political blasts text message were widespread.

“Technology is eclipsing some of our laws," Mangan says, and that the rising number of mass text messages sent out to voters this election cycle may mean state lawmakers need to update the rules for electronic political lobbying and communication.

“If we start seeing things that don't necessarily fit into something that is currently within statue that is going to be an issue regarding transparency, we are certainly going to let folks know that they need to talk to their legislators about working on that issue," Mangan said.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct incomplete quotations. We regret the error.

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