With Nov. 3 approaching, Montana’s secretary of state candidates are offering starkly contrasting visions for the state’s top election office. Both candidates have emphasized greater election security but have different plans to achieve it.
The secretary of state race doesn’t catch the headlines of Montana’s high profile gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests but Montana State University political scientist Eric Raile says it carries big implications. Whoever voters choose will oversee the next four years of Treasure State elections, among other duties.
“Most people don’t know precisely what it does," Raile said. "I think we have a couple of things going on right now that really highlight the importance of the secretary of state position in Montana government."
Raile pointed out current Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s recent legal efforts to keep the Green Party on the November ballot and his role providing guidance to county election officials navigating the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Republican candidate Christi Jacobsen, Stapleton’s current deputy, says she’d carry forward many of his priorities, like updating and securing the state’s aging voting system.
Democrat Bryce Bennett says he’ll take collaborative approaches to issues like cybersecurity, while also calling for more voting access.
A recent Montana Youth Action led town hall titled “Defending our Democracy” highlighted Bennett’s criticism of the Stapleton administration.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a secretary of state who took leadership in the face of a global pandemic," Bennett said.
Responding in an interview, Jacobsen called Bennett “clueless and inexperienced.”
Jacobsen advocates taking traditional security oriented avenues, like enacting stronger voter identification laws. She didn’t have any specific changes to those laws in mind but says she would collaborate with state lawmakers on the issue.
“Voter integrity is the primary job of the secretary of state’s office and leading elections. And so whatever we can do to work towards strengthening that with voter ID is something that I would be in favor of,” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen says election security also motivates her opposition to automatic online voter registration, which she says leads to undocumented immigrants casting ballots. Bennett says automatic registration at the Department of Motor Vehicles would increase legal votership among all political parties.
He says dark money, political spending by groups that don’t reveal their donors is one of the primary forces corrupting elections.
“I am running for this office because we need a secretary of state who makes it their priority to fight against the dark money that’s poisoning our political system and stands in the way of Montanans having their voices heard,” Bennett said.
Bennett says he would address another opaque feature of the electoral process, cybersecurity, by forming a team of private and public sector experts, including other secretaries of state, to shore up county and state systems.
Jacobsen says replacing Montana’s aging election system is the state’s most urgent cybersecurity concern.
“It’s 20 years old and anytime you have an aging platform, the vulnerabilities of that increase. So that’s absolutely the next step and a priority for me and my administration,” Jacobsen said.
Jacobsen says the Stapleton administration’s collaboration with the Montana National Guard cybersecurity unit and various state agencies under Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock proves her ability to work across party lines. That dynamic could again come into play after the election in a state known for splitting tickets.
Bennett says he would try to work with a Republican governor too, if one is elected, but that he would vigilantly exercise administrative rules and legal challenges against the executive and Legislature to ensure the state doesn’t adopt what he calls backward policies.
Bennett has spoken out against the voter initiated Ballot Interference Prevention Act, which caps the number of ballots a person or group can drop off for someone else at six. Republican state lawmakers said the act was written in response to elderly voters getting harassed by aggressive ballot collectors. But Native American tribes sued to prevent Stapleton from enforcing the law, alleging it suppresses their members’ voting rights.
“It would be nice to have a secretary of state that brings our Native American friends and neighbors to the table to make sure we can build programs to ensure they have their voices heard and votes counted,” Bennett said.
Bennett says he would try to strengthen reservation satellite election offices, partner with nonprofits like Western Native Voice and hire an Indigenous liaison to the secretary of state’s office.
Jacobsen wouldn’t provide her personal opinion on the Ballot Interference Prevention Act but says the initiative is the will of the people and the secretary of state’s office will continue to defend the law.
“We continually operate in a world of lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit. So I anticipate we’re going to continue to have lawsuits, and that’s just been a mode of operation for us around here,” Jacobsen said.
Election officials expect strong voter turnout in November, following record breaking numbers during June’s all mail ballot primary.
Bennett praised Bullock’s recent directive allowing counties to decide whether to conduct an all mail ballot general election, which most have opted to do.
Meanwhile, Jacobsen says one of her top priorities as secretary of state would be preventing Montana from permanently adopting all mail voting, as several western states have. She says about one third of Montanans still prefer to vote in person.
Counties opting into the upcoming November all mail election will send ballots to registered voters Oct. 9.