Candidates for statewide offices in Montana are gearing up for next year’s primaries. Republican State Senator Scott Sales announced in March he’s running for Secretary of State. He recently spoke with YPR News’ Jess Sheldahl about election security and his plans to develop communication with the County Clerks and Recorders.
Jess Sheldahl: Thank you so much Senator Sales for coming and talking with us at Yellowstone Public Radio today.
Scott Sales: Glad to be here.
JS: You've worked with the Montana legislature for sixteen years now. How would your past experience influence you as Secretary of State?
SS: Well I think my years at the legislature have prepared me well for the possibility of holding the office of Secretary of State. You become well versed with what the responsibilities of the Secretary of State's office is. Obviously as lawmakers, we pass laws that the Secretary of State must interpret for the election as well as the other aspects of their job.
I'm very familiar with the Land Board and its responsibilities being primarily to maximize the revenue off the state lands for the benefit of the schools and a myriad of other responsibilities.
But the legislature works closely with the Secretary of State's office.
I've had the opportunity and the privilege and the honor of being Speaker of the House and President of the Senate two different times, so from a leadership standpoint I understand how to run big organizations with a bunch of diverse responsibility. I think that's prepared me well, as well as my private sector experience I've had in my personal life.
JS: Going back to your experience with the Land Board, since you would be a member as Secretary of State, one of the most pressing issues facing the board right now is how to support the people of Colstrip as Units 1 and 2 are closed down at the Colstrip power plant. What ideas do you have to support the Colstrip community during this transition?
SS: Well that's a great question and it's something I'm well versed with because I worked very closely with Senator [Duane] Ankney and Senator [Tom] Richmond right from here in Billings.
During the session, we tried very hard to broker a deal between one of the west coast utilities that wants to divest itself of that asset and NorthWestern Energy, who is the largest public utility in the state of Montana. Unfortunately we weren't able to come up with a bill that would work for everybody but I'm very well versed with that subject matter. Colstrip provides about five percent of the property tax for the entire state. Employs roughly three or four hundred people there at Colstrip, another probably three or four hundred people at the mine that supplies the coal. You have all the coal trust severance dollars that end up there and then the probably thousands of ancillary jobs that support the Colstrip community and those power plants.
During that real big cold snap we had in February and March, if it hadn't been for Colstrip there would have been people shivering in the dark both on the west coast and potentially here in Montana.
We need to preserve those two Colstrip 3 and 4 generating units because they supply the baseload energy that's so critical for us during times of, well all times, but in particularly during very cold times because you know not that I'm opposed to renewable energy but when the wind doesn't blow all the time and the sun doesn't shine all the time and we've become very accustomed in this modern era that we live in that when you walk in a room and you want your equipment here at the studio to come on or you want your air condition to come on or you want your range to come on, that you just flip a switch. It requires that baseload carbon fuel to supply that baseload energy. We came up a little bit short but we're going to continue to work on it in the interim. I'm hoping during the 2021 session that we'll get some movement on that because that is of real vital resource for the people of Montana, the rate payers, and for a lot of people that are jobs and livelihood depend on it.
JS: Are there any other priorities that you would have for the Land Board?
SS: Well obviously we want to maximize the amount of income for the schools, so that's the primary responsibility but also as a land owner myself and an avid outdoorsman I understand need for access. So I would want to work with the Land Board to increase the access where possible. But keeping in mind that it's a fine balance between the property rights of the adjoining land owners and people have those leases and the sportsmen. But I think we can do that. We've done it in the past. We need to do a better job of it in the future.
And you know because of my background in agriculture as well as I have a professional guide's license. I understand that this balancing act between access and and the individuals that hold those leases. But I think we can do a better job of that and going forward I would use my background to that to aid me in that decision making process.
JS: In a letter to the Richmond County Clerk and Recorder on July 24th, current Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said he thinks it will take longer than his original goal of 2020 to implement a new voting system in Montana changing the software used to count votes. Since the new goal for implementation is 2021 or beyond, and if you win the election you would be in office, how would you manage the transition to a new election system in Montana?
SS: Well I think the Secretary of State made a good decision in postponing that because this next 2020 election is going to be a huge one, not just for the country but here in Montana. Got a presidential race, got a U.S. Senate race, we haven't had an open congressional race. We're gonna have a governor's race and then the other four constitutional offices, plus 25 senators and 100 members in the House. Plus all the county and city elections too. So I think it's probably a good idea to postpone that decision because of the magnitude of that. I can't speak as intelligently as I would like to about that, considering I'm not in that office. I don't know all the details about the computer system or the upgrade and what be required to do it. But certainly as the next year goes on I'm going to learn more about that process and certainly if I'm elected I'm going to be, like you said, one of the individuals that has the charter to implement that.
I think it's key that you work very closely with the clerk and recorders of all 56 counties and the election administrators to make sure you get their input, that you make sure you get there by in that they understand what's going to be happening there, as well as the office to make sure it's a well integrated change that will have the least amount of disruption and hopefully gain the security benefits that they were looking for. So you know, there's quite a bit of time left. We don't know who the Secretary of State's going to be. We got a primary to go through. We got a general more than a year away, but it is a big deal and it's something that's on my radar screen.
JS: Yeah, it seems like the election coverage is ramping up super early and it's not just for things that are generally seen as the bigger positions, it's across the board. Everyone's ramping up what they're doing for their campaigns so early. After foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, election security is a concern for a lot of people right now. What would you do to make sure Montana's elections are secure?
SS: Well I think they are secure, and in fact I've had the opportunity through being President of the Senate to attend different meetings that have dealt with the subject matter. I've heard from Secretary of States, both Republican and Democrat, from other states and even though there was a effort to try to interfere with our elections these individuals, and I would think that Secretary Stapleton would agree, that there was no interference. There was an effort to interfere but this is nothing new.
And you know, governments have been trying to interfere in our elections way before 2016. This is something that's been going on forever and even though, you know the United States is in my opinion, tries to be the arbiter of fairness and freedom around the world, let's be honest. We interfere in others people's elections, too. We've interfered, from what I understand, in Israel's recent election and we tried to run interference in Ukraine's elections. So this is what foreign countries do to try to gain the upper hand on a opposition-type government. With that said, we do need to be diligent. We do need to be aware that this problem exists and we need to take the necessary actions to make sure that we're insulated, both at the state level and the federal level, from foreign entities being able to interfere with our elections. It's paramount.
One of the things why I'm running for Secretary of State is from a security and integrity standpoint. We need to make sure that the population, the voting population, knows that our system is full of integrity and the security is there so that they know that their vote is counted -- that is counted properly, it's counted timely and that the results are reported accurately. So all those things enter into the security aspects, not just at the federal and state level and foreign governments trying to come in. We need to take that security integrity portion of that job extremely serious right here in the state of Montana as well.
JS: Last election Montana voters passed a law that limits the number of absentee ballots that can be dropped off by a single person. How do you see this impacting the turnout in 2020?
SS: You know I think it's not going to have that large of impact on it. I supported that bill. I thought it was a good idea. You know our elections are just one of the paramount cornerstones of a free society right there with property rights. So it's imperative that we take the necessary steps not to impede people's ability to vote, but just to make sure that we have people voting that deserve to. First of all, they need to be a citizen of the United States and second of all, they need to be a resident of Montana and that the right people, I should say, the right people but the people that have the constitutional right to vote are able to vote.
It was just a small step I think in order to keep a little bit of malfeasance from entering into the system. I think the people that really take their personal responsibility of voting in that citizens responsibility, I don't think it's going to be a big deal. I'd be very surprised to see if there's any reduction in the amount of vote turnout. I think this 2020 election is going to generate a lot of activity, considering the level of the presidential election, the governors election. I know the Republicans are extremely vote motivated in the governors election because we've been out of power for 16 years. But Montanans typically take the right to vote as very seriously, their constitutional right, and I don't think that five vote ballot initiative is going to amount to anything that's going to deter people from voting.
JS: You said that absentee ballot restriction was a small step in making sure that elections are available to the people who have the constitutional right to vote in that election. What are some other steps that you could see as making that more true?
SS: Well you know, I've never supported same day voter registration. That passed back in 2005 and if I remember right, it was Republican Secretary of State Brad Johnson pushed for that. I was one of the individuals, and was just a few of us in the House, that actually voted against that. I felt that people who want to vote and have a need to vote and have an interest to vote should take a little bit of personal responsibility and maybe that should be backed up by a few days. I know it causes a lot of extra work and and concern and delays the the election results on that Tuesday. I've advocated and I spoke to quite a few of the clerks and recorders today that actually weren't opposed to having that date backed up a couple days. So that allows them more time to make sure that these people that are filing at the last minute truly are Montanans and they truly do have the right to vote.
I think that is just a commonsense effort to bring more security and more integrity to the system. And you know, something as sacred in my mind as the right to vote, people probably need to get prepared a little bit for it. Those of us that are avid hunters here in Montana and when you move here you have to be a resident for six months before you can get a hunting license. I don't think it's too much to ask of the voters maybe to get to the polls or get to the the clerk and recorder's office and get registered to vote a couple days before the election. Hunting is a privilege. Voting is a constitutional right. And it affects a myriad of different decisions -- who gets elected, how things are funded. All kinds of things. So we need to take that responsibility extremely seriously as citizens and you know, I think that would be another small step in the right direction. That would make the job easier for the clerks and recorders but also bring a little bit more security and integrity to the system by just backing up that same-day voter registration maybe a day or two before the election, maybe the Friday before.
JS: In 2014 the state settled a federal lawsuit with several Native American tribes by establishing satellite election offices on tribal lands across Montana. As Secretary of State, how would you work with Montana's tribes to ensure their access to the polls?
SS: Well the way I understand it right now is that they do have polling places set up on the reservation, so you know they have just as much right to vote as anybody else. So I think it's incumbent upon the office and the counties that have the reservations to accommodate the voters on the reservation. I know that a lot of people, including myself, are currently voting absentee ballot or mail-in ballot. As more and more people do that, I think that it becomes less and less of an issue on these polling places.
Now obviously there's still roughly 25, maybe 35 percent of the voters are voting in a traditional fashion. And I applaud them for doing that. There's nothing wrong with that but obviously we need to be attentive to the fact that everybody who's here legally and has the right to vote has access to be able to vote and we don't want to build barriers or put barriers up for people to do that. We just want to make sure that it's secure.
JS: Is there anything that Corey Stapleton has done as Secretary of State that you would want to reverse? And on the flip side of that, what from his administration would you want to carry forward?
SS: Well I've known Corey for a long period of time. I served with him in the legislature all the way back from when I came in in 2002 and he was the Minority Leader in the Senate when I was Speaker of the House. I've known Corey a long period time and I consider him a friend.
I've heard some comments from some of the business people in the state that the software and website isn't as user friendly as it could be for people that are trying to register their documents with the state. That's something I would try to streamline. Make it easier, make it more accommodating for people that are doing the business and actually paying the payrolls and paying the taxes in the state. So I don't know if I would say it's a criticism, it's just something I've heard from other individuals and it's something that I would focus on, is to try to make that a more user friendly environment when people approach the state to file their paperwork.
In terms of how he's actually handled the office, my understanding is that he's reduced the FTE [full time equivalent] count by quite a bit in the office, which saves the taxpayers money, which saves the business owners money. I would like to continue to preserve that, obviously as a fiscal conservative and someone that has the record in Helena to prove it, that we continue to be good stewards of the taxpayers dollars and we try to run that operation as efficiently as possible.
In terms of how the elections are handled, I know that there is a little friction, I don't know to how large a degree, but I've heard it from different clerks and recorders and individuals involved in that. I would like to approach that probably with a more partnership type of approach, where I open up the office frequently. Not that people can already do it but be more welcoming to the opinions of the local election officials and the clerks and recorders that deal with the Secretary of State's office.
My plan over the next 10 months between now and the primary is to visit all 56 counties and to meet with as many of those individuals as they have time and I have the bandwidth to do that. So I can get their input, so I can develop a face to face relationship with them, so they know who I am, what I'm about and you know, open that dialogue, because I think it's very critical for that dialogue to be open and to be receptive both from the Secretary of State's office but also the other direction to the clerks and recorders.
JS: Well it sounds like you have a busy 10 months ahead of you. That's a lot of counties.
SS: There's looking to be a lot of activity. Yeah, I imagine I'm going to put a few miles on the car.
JS: Thank you so much for coming and talking with Yellowstone Public Radio today.
SS: I appreciate it. Now people want to learn more about myself. I have a Web site and it's salesformontana.com and I recently just did another interview, a very in-depth one with the Montana Free Press. So I'm going to pitch them a little bit. I know they might be the competition but if you want to learn of the-
JS: The Montana Lowdown is our friend.
SS: That's a very good thing and there's a very in-depth interview that I just recently did. I encourage people if they want to learn more about me and my ideas to take a few minutes to listen to that podcast.
JS: Thank you again.
SS: You bet.