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Counties Prepare For Mail-In Voting; COVID-19 Puts Spotlight On Bullock

Tonight on Campaign Beat: Primary election ballots are set to be mailed in six weeks. Members of Congress arguably have less influence than governors during the growing pandemic. Montana Republicans fess up to their effort to get Greens on the ballot. And Montana's secretary of state thinks this is "the perfect time for a crisis."

Listen now on Campaign Beat, with Sally Mauk, Rob Saldin and Holly Michels.

Sally MaukGovernor Bullock, this week, in addition to his shelter in place, order announced that any counties that want to can have an all mail-in ballot for the June primary because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That certainly seems like the choice most, if not all, counties will make in the face of this health threat. What do you think?

Holly MichelsI think you're right. Sally. We saw the same day that Bullock actually gave that directive to the counties, Bret Rutherford who's the elections administrator in Yellowstone County, biggest, most populous county in the state, told the Billings Gazette there that it was something already that he'd been planning to see if he could pursue it, and is going to go down that road for sure now. And he said that he'd been communicating with a lot of other elections administrators around the state already and that they'd indicated to him that they'd probably also choose to do their elections by mail. Since then, we've seen that Missoula County has said that they are going to do by mail, and Butte-Silver Bow County as well. So they'll ask their commissioners to sign off on it. And same with Cascade County. I think important for people to know, even if counties do choose to vote by mail. There still is an option for people to vote in person during the early 30 day voting window, and that county elections administrators still need to follow social distancing guidelines to maybe limit how many people do that in person in their offices, and keep people, you know, at least six feet apart. But even if counties do choose to do that by mail, there are ways for people who don't want to vote by mail to still vote in the June 2 primary.

MaukRight. Mail-in ballots would be sent out as early as May 8. And I think it's astonishing to realize that's only about six weeks away, that people are going to be getting those ballots.

MichelsYep. It is really, really soon. I think, you know, Bullock put out this information on this directive this week because even before that, you know, May 8 seems soon. But counties have a lot of work that they need to be doing on their end, deadlines that they need to be looking at and meeting there even before that. So this is, you know, probably tight timeline for them, but it seems like something that they were expecting and had been preparing for and get support from people Montana to know they could do a lot of things; voting by either email, mail, or if people fax machines maybe at their home, that's still an option. But county web sites have a lot of good voting information. The secretary of state has a good voter information page. You can do a lot of things like request your absentee ballot by mail if your county doesn't choose to go to mail. But just, there's a lot of things that people can do that they don't have to go down and handle in person to still be able to vote this year.

MaukRob, Congress has passed an enormous stimulus bill to try to mitigate the economic fallout from the pandemic, but there was a lot of partisan wrangling before the bill was passed. And Senator Steve Daines was one of the more visible debaters. Here he is chastising Democrats for not going along with the Senate's original version of the bill.

"We were told we're at the 1 yard line last night to get this done. All I got to say is the Senate may think it's on the one yard line right now, but Montanans are getting sacked."

MaukPoliticians, Rob are never ones to pass up a chance to use a football analogy. But Daines has been, it seems to me, quite out front during this debate.

Rob SaldinYes, Sally. You know, it certainly was an opportunity for him to get into the spotlight and speak to this crisis. And and politically speaking, for Daines, that platform is important because his reelection is not appearing to be the cakewalk that it looked like it was going to be before Bullock jumped in. And these opportunities all of a sudden, therefore, are just a lot more important for Daines.

But at the same time, Sally, I was kind of struck in the sense that we just saw the limitations of being a member of Congress during a crisis. The reality is that these kinds of situations just offer limited opportunities for individual senators and House members to actually do anything that really matters, right? I mean, they can issue statements, they can make speeches and at the end of it all they can vote. But the final vote in the Senate was hardly suspenseful. It was 96 to 0. So Daines and members of Congress in general are somewhat constrained just by virtue of their position within the system. And now the Senate is on recess for the next several weeks. So in times like these, the real action, it seems to me, is with the executives, the president, the governors, mayors; these are the people who have a much larger platform, both in terms of just day to day visibility, but also in terms of real power.

MaukTo that point, Gov. Bullock, who's hoping to challenge Daines in November, is getting a lot of press because of his necessary leadership during this pandemic.

'Campaign Beat' is a weekly political analysis program from Montana Public Radio.

SaldinYeah, yeah, exactly. You know, and in contrast to these senators, you know, governors, governors can actually do things. And in times of crisis, you know, not only can they do things, but people want unifying leadership. And so over the last couple of weeks we've seen that it's governors across the country who've really become the focus of the response. Right? Probably most notably Andrew Cuomo in New York, but also Mike DeWine and Gavin Newsom and so on. But certainly for us, Steve Bullock has been a key figure. Right? Probably the key figure in terms of leading the effort on all sorts of things that affect our daily lives; from school closures to restaurants, now a stay at home order. And this is just a reflection of the reality that governors have a certain set of roles and responsibilities in these situations and they have the power to act. And for Bullock, it strikes me that even more than other governors, he's now in the spotlight in a way that he otherwise wouldn't be. Right? I mean, typically at this point in a second term, the Montana governor would totally be on the back burner. Right? Because our our legislature only meets every other year. You know, Bullock's last legislative session ended months ago. So outside of this crisis, he'd really be in serious lame duck territory. Now, I guess one final point on that Sally, is just, I'd say, you know, this is maybe potentially a double edged sword. He's got the power and the platform and he'll get the praise if things go well. And my own sense is that he's done quite well so far. He's conducted himself as as you'd expect someone in his institutional role to conduct themselves. And that actually hasn't been the case with every governor. But we also don't necessarily know how this thing is going to play out here in Montana. And, you know, as like Don Rumsfeld used to say, we've still got a lot of known unknowns and most likely some unknown unknowns. So events are going to matter in all of this.

MaukHe gets the attention and he also has the responsibility for what happens in some ways.

Holly, we've been pondering for weeks who is behind getting so-called Green Party candidates on the ballot, since we knew it wasn't the Green Party. And this week we found out who it was. It was the Montana Republican Party. They sent $100,000 to pay people to gather signatures to get the Greens on the ballot.

MichelsYeah, this was a story, I think this speaks to me a little bit of how COVID-19 coverage is taken over everything. This was a major story I'd been following and then it totally fell by the wayside until this week. But like you said, the Montana Republican Party spent that money. They hired petitioners who went around and got enough signatures to get the Green Party on the ballot in Montana. What was kind of the mystery is if you spend money to do that work in Montana, you need to register as a minor party qualification committee. Only one group had done that. And they said that they weren't planning on submitting signatures. So that's where the mystery of who behind this came from, is no one had put in the paperwork to do that signature petitioning. The Republicans, the money that they spent went to an in-kind donation for a group called Montanans for Conservation. And Chuck Denowh who's a political operative who works with Republicans on a lot of campaigns and for conservative causes in the state, said that he registered Montanans for Conservation back in January and he tried to register them as a minor party qualification committee, but said he ran into trouble because on the commissioner political practices web site, that wasn't an option on a dropdown menu. So he said he made, you know, a note on the form and that they thought that that did everything it needed to comply with this new state law that requires that registration.

You know, I talked to Chuck this week. I tried to reach out to him and the Montana Republican Party before all this became clear this week to see if they had a role in this, and was unable to reach them. And I think, you know, a lot of people have been trying to figure this out. We saw the Montana Democratic Party actually put in a political practices complaint, asking the commissioner of political practices to investigate it. So, you know, Montana Republicans have said that they feel like everything they did in this process was, you know, complying with the law and all above board. But at the same time, this is something people were trying to find out, and they weren't, you know, vocal or returning my phone calls, and I'm sure other reporters who were trying to figure out what was going on here. The commissioner said this week that he's sort of evaluating the complaint that Democrats have filed with him to see, you know, what might go on there. The Democrats, I think, this week they called it 'election fraud' and would like to see, I think they went as far as calling for the Green Party to be removed from the ballot because of just sort of how the qualification process went.

MaukFor anyone who thinks the Republican Party platform has anything in common with the goals of the Green Party, I have a roll of toilet paper I'd like to sell you, I think. The idea, of course, is that the Green Party, if it is on the ballot, would help Republican candidates because it would steal votes from Democrats. And Democrats called election fraud. But of course, they don't have a clean slate on such shenanigans either. But Holly, do you think voters care or is this, in their minds, just the usual dirty politics?

MichelsI think you're right that it's probably just the usual dirty politics is what voters think about it, or if they're even aware. I mean, I think right now there's so much other news going on that political news really isn't hitting with voters. Even like we said before, we're getting pretty close to an election. Ballots go out soon. But I don't think people are really focusing on that so much. I think that's where a lot of candidates struggle. Green Party candidates who I've talked to who've maybe run in years past aren't running this year. They're pretty frustrated because they believe in the party platform and they feel like it's just being abused by the major parties in the state to try to score political points for them. But I do think it's something that most people aren't watching very closely.

MaukRob, secretary of state and U.S. House candidate Corey Stapleton sent out another newsletter this week. It has many people wondering what the heck he's talking about. The newsletter starts out talking about how thrifty his mother was, then how big this election is, then how some countries are helpless, but not Americans. And then he closes with this sentence, "It is the perfect time for a crisis." I'm not sure most people would agree.

SaldinYeah, it seemed a little off key. And more than that, just as a professor, it kind of reminded me a bit of grading a paper that doesn't quite hold together as a piece of writing. As you say, Sally, he starts off with this bit about his parents living through the depression and how that influenced the rest of their lives. And you know that, that was nice. But then there's this pivot from that to the fact that this is a big election year in Montana, which was a little abrupt. But I think his point was that these elections are good in that they give us a say in how our state and the federal government responds to the crisis. But even that seems a little off because the crisis is now and the people we elect aren't going to take office until January. So this is one that probably could have stood another round of revisions. You know, but one thing, Sally, that I did think was reassuring in there, was that Stapleton did say that the elections will go forward, and presumably he means they'll go forward as scheduled. And presumably that includes our primary election coming up here in early June.

MaukWell, the new normal that we're all in feels anything but normal. But hang in there, guys. We'll talk again next week. Thanks.

Campaign Beat, is a weekly political analysis program produced by Montana Public Radio featuring University of Montana Political Science Professor and Mansfield Center Fellow Rob Saldin, Lee Newspapers Capitol Reporter Holly Michels and host Sally Mauk. Join us next week for more analysis of Montana politics.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Retired in 2014 but still a presence at MTPR, SallyMaukis a University of Kansas graduate and former wilderness ranger who has reported on everything from the legislature to forest fires. She also taught broadcast writing and reporting in the University of Montana journalism school.
Rob Saldin
Holly Michels