Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio interviewed Montana's statewide general election candidates.
Christi Jacobsen is the 2020 Republican candidate for secretary of state. Jacobsen is currently the deputy Secretary of State, with a previous career in the private telecom industry. She shared her plan for strengthening election security, support of a voter ID law and promises not to raise business filing fees with Montana Public Radio’s Corin Cates Carney.
Editor’s note: These interviews have been fact checked. See editor’s notes throughout this transcript. The audio includes the fact checks, but is otherwise unedited save for a few snips for listenability.
Corin Cates-Carney: Christi Jacobson is the Republican candidate for secretary of state. Thank you for joining us.
Christi Jacobsen: Thank you, Corin.
Corin Cates-Carney: For voters who are just getting to know you and your candidacy and your campaign for secretary of state, can you give us a brief introduction?
Christi Jacobsen: I was born and raised in Helena. I earned my bachelor's degree from Carroll College and my master's degree from University of Montana in public administration. My husband and I raised our five kids here in Helena and my career spans over 20 years. I worked both in the private sector and the public sector, and I'm the current deputy secretary of state. I have been doing the job for the last almost four years now as.
Corin Cates-Carney: I want to talk about your time as deputy deputy secretary of state. But tell me a bit more about your career in the private sector. What do you do?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, I started in the telecom industry. In the telecom industry we had a lot of focus around customer service and measuring our performance. And those are some of the values and principles in the private sector that I've been able to bring to the secretary of state's office.
Corin Cates-Carney: You're the current deputy secretary of state under Corey Stapleton. Stapleton ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for the U.S. House, leaving the secretary of state position open. What makes you want to take over the job?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, I'm fully invested in the people and the work that we do. We've done a lot of amazing work in the last four years but there are some things that I'd like to continue with that I started. We procured replacing a 20 year old aging election system and the original goal is to have that launched in this current general election. We worked with the county clerks and extended that deadline. So that is one of the things that I will tackle under my administration in the first couple years. We've made a lot of great progress towards that. It absolutely needs to be replaced. It's a 20 year old system and when you have an aging system like that, it's important to keep the technology updated because it creates vulnerabilities if you don't do that. So that's what one of the top priorities for me is going to be.
Corin Cates-Carney: You mentioned the original goal was to get that updated before this coming election. If you are elected is there an updated timeline for when that can happen?
Christi Jacobsen: That will be in the next election and we'll be starting with the candidate filing in 2022, that will be the first component of that. That is, it will be up and running will be the candidate filing and 2022.
Corin Cates-Carney: And you mentioned that this is important to do because of creating a secure election system. What does that mean if this isn't in place for the upcoming election?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, it is in place for the current election and that's a great question. That's something that I absolutely want to put ease in the minds of the voters. We have partnered with Department of Homeland Security twice now, most recently this spring. And is what we've had them do as they come in and they basically try and penetrate our system and create ways to find a way to get in. And they have been unsuccessful in the ability to do that. So we've worked really hard on the security issues in the last couple of years to make sure that everything is updated, current and there are no vulnerabilities. So we've actually, with the Department of Homeland Security, had them come in and try and penetrate our our system and they were unsuccessful in doing that. So rest assured that this election will be secure.
Corin Cates-Carney: Your office has also worked with the National Guard on that effort is that right?
Christi Jacobsen: That is correct. So the National Guard, is what we did with the National Guard Corin, is we partnered with them to offer that same service at the county level. Our county partners are just as important as our state system and the National Guard has gone out and it's been voluntary for the counties to participate. We've had about 10 counties that have participated in that and the National Guard has gone out and and done a risk assessment at the county level, made recommendations for improvements. Then the counties are able to take that information and make improvements at the county level. And that will be something that I will continue as well under my administration. With the security it's not something that you do one time and put on the shelf and and you check the box in and we're secure. That is continuous monitoring and self-assessment, risk assessment, taking the feedback, making any changes that you need to, staying relevant. And this is just the way that we need to operate into the future. So we're going to continue with that at the county level, partnering with the National Guard and at the national level, partnering with Department of Homeland Security. Absolutely.
Corin Cates-Carney: You mentioned a few efforts you want to continue, efforts you made during your time as deputy secretary of state you want to continue. What would a secretary of state's office in the administration of Jacobson look like, maybe that's different than the current administration under Stapleton?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, some of the things we've done, we were the first in the country to go completely digital with our business filing and offering businesses to file 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Absolutely going to continue with that. But just the continuous improvement and we monitor our performance. We monitor how we serve our customers, our businesses and our voters. And that continual self-evaluation of improvement. So, just always upping the service level of responding and providing immaculate customer service for our businesses and our voters.
Corin Cates-Carney: Any new projects that you'd want to put on or take on? Or is it mostly continuing and improving current projects?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, like I said, the election system and then partnering with our legislature. I think any legislation that comes down that improves the integrity of elections or can provide some clarity. As you know, we've been in, had several lawsuits over the last six months or so. And I think is what we've learned from that is we can clarify some laws to hopefully prevent these types of lawsuits in the future. And so I would be very much interested in partnering with the legislature to find solutions and the governor to provide clarity going forward and hopefully stopping some of the lawsuits and the confusion in the future.
Corin Cates-Carney: What specific lawsuits are you referring to that would translate into a new policy?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, I think right now we've got, number one anything that secures and promotes the integrity of our elections, I think is something that I would I would certainly look at. One thing that we just had a recent performance audit and one of the recommendations that came out of that is defining security. What is security? There is no definition and statute around that. And there's really no level of formal enforcement on that. So defining and defining what security is. And some of the you know, I think the emergency powers that were used, I think, you know, that there's a lot of Montanans that were upset about the lack of legislative oversight on that. So maybe looking at at that end of the future, in rear end relation to elections.
Corin Cates-Carney: And do you, there do you mean the emergency powers Gov. Steve Bullock used to create more early voting and the option for counties to have all mail ballots?
Christi Jacobsen: Yes. So there's just significant changes to the election system under these emergency powers that are very, they're historic. We went from an absentee and an in-person system to an all mail system and that was done without any legislative oversight. That's pretty significant. That's a pretty significant change. The deadline for returning the ballots has changed, gone back and forth. And as it currently sits, it's going to stay on Nov. 3, ballots received at 8:00 P.M. But there's confusion and back and forth on that. So these are really, you know, they're, like I said, they're historic changes. They're significant changes. And I just think changes like this should be vetted through the legislature and there we should have more public participation on that.
Corin Cates-Carney: Do you agree with the decision Gov. Steve Bullock made to give counties the option to run or mail ballot elections this year?
Christi Jacobsen: I agree with decisions being made at the local level, absolutely.
Corin Cates-Carney: Does that mean you agree with Gov. Steve Bullock's decision? That was made at the governor level.
Christi Jacobsen: I agree with the decision to be made at the local level.
Corin Cates-Carney: Does that mean you agree with the option counties have to either opt in or not?
Christi Jacobsen: Yeah, I agree with that. I agree with counties making the decision at the local level. Something that I've heard from voters across the state, there's about a third of the voters that like to vote in person and that the feedback I get on that is if you can show up and you can vote or you can shop at Wal-Mart and do all these other, certainly you should be able to show up and vote in person. So it's that third of voters that like to vote traditionally at the polls that I, I think were left out in their voice on this and this whole process.
Corin Cates-Carney: And that's voting at the polls. I think the current option for counties is giving them the option to run all mail ballot elections still gives voters the option to turn in their ballots in person.
Christi Jacobsen: They can turn in their ballots at the local election office. My concern is there were two hundred and eighty five polling locations that were completely eliminated. That's a lot of polling locations that were eliminated.
Corin Cates-Carney: Have you talked to the counties, how many counties have opted in and have opted out?
Christi Jacobsen: There have been 10 counties that chose to conduct the election in person and the remaining 46 chose to conduct the all mail ballots.
Editor's note: Jacobsen says 10 counties have opted for in-person elections. Eleven counties have not submitted mail ballot plans for the 2020 general election.
Corin Cates-Carney: Just want to make sure I'm understanding your position on that. You support counties making that decision for themselves.
Christi Jacobsen: Yeah, yeah. In this situation, I believe local control was best.
Corin Cates-Carney: Even after the pandemic is over would you support counties having that option of running all mail ballot elections in the future?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, I think we need to take a look at this with the legislature. I think that's my biggest concern as these decisions were made by the governor without ever talking to our office and without talking with the legislature. And these type of historic changes, they just need to be vetted through the legislature with lots of public participation. I think that's what the biggest concern is, is that the voters that like to vote in person, they weren't able to voice that, to show up and share with their, you know, at the level with the legislature and having the legislative oversight on that.
Corin Cates-Carney: In this situation, how would that have happened when the legislature isn't scheduled to meet until 2021?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, those are some things that I think that the governor should have considered, you know, the lawsuits that we've had as a result of this. And a lot of the confusion we've had are are afterthoughts after the, you know, the ball is spent set in motion.
Corin Cates-Carney: And just to clarify the lawsuits, the national Republicans, President Trump's reelection campaign are suing Montana over the governor's directive to allow counties to opt in for all mail ballot voting.
Christi Jacobsen: There's that. And then there's also the BIPA [Ballot Interference Prevention Act] and there's the timelines on that of when and ballots are received and when they can be counted and when an election actually closes, when there's been a recent change in that decision. But certainly I think there's a lot of concern over changing the date in which ballots are received and actually extending the election. So now we're extending it on the front end and we're extending it on the back end. And the kind of the common theme here is that we never have closure on these things. We never have deadlines and we don't have closure. And I think when we're dealing with elections, it's very important that we have deadlines and they're enforceable and voters know what those are when we're changing them back and forth, it just creates a lot of confusion.
Corin Cates-Carney: And you mentioned before, that's the Ballot Interference Prevention Act that voters approved of. It was recently struck down by a judge who said it made it more burdensome for Native Americans, tribal members to cast ballots. Did you want to add on that?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, that particular, that passed with 63 percent of the vote in Montana. And it also passed in every single county. So when you have that level of voter approval and you have a judge overturn the decision of what the voters will is, again, that's pretty significant. My concern for the Native Americans and for the people that like to vote in person is the voter suppression that's taking place at that level. Where's the voice on that right now?
Corin Cates-Carney: I want to touch on election security again, because on your campaign Web site, it mentions election security, integrity is a big issue for you and your campaign. What is the most pressing election security issue that you see facing Montana's election system? You've mentioned some efforts under way but are there more efforts that could be put in place? And how would you go about that?
Christi Jacobsen: Well, we've got several things in place. We've got the two party authentification, which was the first, we were the one of the first in the country to do that. And that provides a high level of security. Again, partnering with the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Information Technology Services and for this election meeting with all of our partners in advance and making sure that we have a plan and there's, any vulnerabilities have been addressed and we've been doing that. We have a really good relationship with all of our partners. And at the forefront of everybody's mind is making sure that this election is secure. All of those best practices, and they change very quickly in the industry. Even the definition of security is changing quickly. But making sure that we know what the best practices are and that we're consistently enforcing the best practice. I think partnering and educating with our counties is also absolutely a top priority because their level of security that they have at the local level is just as important as the security that we have at the state level. And that's something that we have done is given grants to counties to ensure the security of the elections. And we have about half of the counties that are still able to apply for security grants. And we want to make sure that we get that money out to them and they can use it for security improvements at the local level.
Corin Cates-Carney: I want to touch on a few other issues your campaign has noted as important. One of those is voter I.D. Can you explain why you think that's necessary for Montana election system and what the policy would look like?
Christi Jacobsen: It's super important for me that we have election integrity and any legislation that I could work with the legislature and the governor that strengthens the integrity of our elections I would be in support of.
Corin Cates-Carney: Why specifically voter I.D.?
Christi Jacobsen: Voter I.D. Is just another means to strengthen the integrity of our elections.
Corin Cates-Carney: This is something that's been argued over in the legislature a few times before. Oftentimes, Republicans are arguing this is really important for election security, having an I.D. to check voter identification. Opponents say these kind of laws make it harder for some people to vote because it's costly and burdensome to get an I.D..
Christi Jacobsen: Well, I give this example. I just I lost my cell phone recently on at a campaign event and I went to replace my cell phone and I needed photo I.D. I had a phone bill. I had my vehicle registration, I had a state I.D. I had all these different forms of documentation and I wanted to replace my cell phone and they would not let me replace my cell phone with with a voter, with a photo identification. Same thing, you want to get on an airplane and you need to have proper identification. And it just makes sense to me with our elections and voting that we have the same level of security to do that. Again, just strengthening the integrity of our elections is so important.
Corin Cates-Carney: Another topic on your campaign Web site is it says you want to make sure every child has a United States and Montana constitution. Why is that something that is a message your campaign is getting out there? And do you have a sense of how much that would cost the state?
Christi Jacobsen: I would like to partner with the Office of Public Instruction and make sure that it's, it's just the foundation of our country. And it's so important. And I think there's so many kids out there that do not even, they've never read it. They don't know what it means. And to partner with the Office of Public Instruction and provide a constitution for the kids to to start there in the civic education is really important.
Corin Cates-Carney: And that would be a joint cost expense for OPI and the secretary of state's office?
Christi Jacobsen: Our office has in the last three and a half years, almost four years now, we've reduced staff by a third. We've gone from 60 to 40 employees and we've gone from four rent locations to one and we've saved millions of dollars in doing that. And we've always made it available for Montanans to request a Montana constitution and a United States Constitution.
Corin Cates-Carney: We've talked a bit about all the aspects of voting that come along or in the elections that come along with the secretary of state's office. I want to touch a bit on the business side of things. The secretary of state's office manages public records for businesses, nonprofit organizations. Do you have ideas for improving that side of the secretary of state's office or making changes to it?
Christi Jacobsen: I want to make sure that it's very easy for businesses to file and register their business. And something that I promise to the business community is that I will not raise filing fees on businesses. During the pandemic, during the shutdown, we were the only state agency that kept our doors open to the public. If you came to the capital on any given day, our doors were open and we were there to serve. If you access to our Web site or you called on the telephone, there was never a day that businesses could not access our office and for our office to provide service. We waived late fees for businesses during the pandemic when they were experiencing hardships. And in the next four years, I promise all businesses in the state that I will never increase business filing fees on them and I will make it easy for them to file.
Corin Cates-Carney: As secretary of state, if elected, you would be one of five statewide elected officials that would sit on the Montana Land Board, which manages state trust lands. What would be some of your priorities for managing those lands and how would you accomplish those those priorities?
Christi Jacobsen: So unlike my opponent, I have been through the public school system and my kids have been through the public school system. All five of our kids have been through the public school system and the Land Board exists to generate money for schools by managing our public lands. And I know firsthand the importance of resourcing our schools and our teachers, our awesome teachers, to be able to fulfill their mission. I've talked to farmers and ranchers throughout the state and the feedback that I've received and my promise to them is that I will not be increasing the lease fees. And I think every decision that's made on the land board needs to be thoughtful and intentional and well researched and vetted. And that's what I promise to do with every single decision that's brought forth.
Editor's note: Jacobsen says her opponent, Democrat Bryce Bennett, did not go to public school. Bennett in 2011 campaign materials said he went to Big Sky High School in Missoula, Mont., which is a public school.
Corin Cates-Carney: Are there other issues that are important to your campaign that you'd like voters to know about?
Christi Jacobsen: I think you covered everything. Thank you.
Corin Cates-Carney: Yeah. Thank you. Christi Jacobson is the Republican candidate for secretary of state. Thank you for taking the time.
Christi Jacobsen: Thank you, Corin. Have a wonderful day.