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Secretary Of State Candidates Differ Over Mail Ballots, Voter Registration

Montana Secretary of State candidates Republican Christi Jacobsen and Democrat Bryce Bennett.
Montana Secretary of State candidates Republican Christi Jacobsen and Democrat Bryce Bennett.

The candidates competing to be Montana’s next Secretary of State sparred in a weekend debate hosted by MTN News. The Democrat accused his Republican opponent of working for a corrupt administration and said he’ll clean up the Secretary of State’s office. The Republican stood by her work and experience and labeled her opponent clueless.

The candidates criticized their opponent's work experience throughout the debate. 

Republican Christi Jacobsen said that in her last three years with the Secretary of State’s office, they’ve cut the number of employees by a third, decreasing spending, and modernized the online business registry to make it accessible 24 hours a day, seven days per week. 

"And I have the education and the experience to properly lead Montana elections," Jacobsen said.

Democrat Bryce Bennett, who’s served five terms in the state Legislature, says staffing reductions have hurt the office’s ability to do needed work, and that it’s time for a change in leadership

"I see an office that is led by my opponent that has been plagued with corruption and incompetence."

Bennett said that corruption has come from current Secretary of State Corey Stapleton. Bennett pointed to an audit that found Stapleton misused a state vehicle to commute from Helena to Billings, and several state contracts that were awarded to a political ally.

Stapleton is leaving the Secretary of State position after one term and after an unsuccessful run in the Republican party’s primary for the U.S. House. 

Views over mail-in voting distinguished the candidates during the debate. 

Jacobsen accused Bennett of supporting voter suppression by supporting all-mail ballot elections during the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic. Jacobsen said she would fight to allow for access to in-person elections for people who want that. 

Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock made an emergency rule in August allowing counties to choose to run all-mail ballot elections in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. That option still allows for in person voting. Forty-five of Montana’s 56 counties have filed plans to take Bullock up on the offer. Republicans have since filed a lawsuit asking a court to stop Bullock’s emergency rule. 

Jacobsen was asked during the debate if she supports that lawsuit. She said the secretary of state’s office has to follow the law and did not say whether or not she supports the legal action. 

Bennett defended running all-mail ballot elections during the pandemic, saying voters shouldn’t have to choose between their health and voting. 

Voter registration policy was another point of contention. 

Jacobsen says she doesn’t support online voter registration. She said it hasn’t worked well in other places.

"We need to keep Montana special and not turning it into California or Colorado," she said.

Bennett said the state should look at tools like online voter registration, and that it’s about making sure everyone has the opportunity to vote. 

"My record is about making sure that our elections have the highest integrity because I know that Montanans expect that."

Election day is Nov. 3. Beginning Oct. 2, voters in counties that opt for a mail ballot election can also cast an absentee ballot in person.


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

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.