2020 Primary Preview: Montana Secretary of State
The Montana Secretary of State oversees elections and election laws, maintains records on legislation and business filings, and serves on the state Board of Land Commissioners, among other duties. Seven candidates are vying for the position in the primary election.
Nicky Ouellet: Rachel, thanks so much for sharing your reporting with us today.
Rachel Cramer: Thanks, Nicky. I’m happy to.
NO: This year Montana has seven candidates on the ballot for Secretary of State. Six Republicans have tossed their hat into the ring for the June 2 primary and one Democrat is also on the ballot. Rachel, who are the GOP candidates and how are they trying to distinguish themselves?
RC: Many of the Republican candidates want the same things -- stronger voter ID laws, like only a government issued photo ID and an end to same-day voter registration. Most have voiced a concern about voter fraud. This is something the current secretary of state Corey Stapleton made central during his early time in office, but there’s no evidence of coordinated voter fraud in the state.
NO: So if their priorities are similar, how are the Republicans trying to stand out to win the primary?
RC: So they’ve been trying to win over voters by pointing to their past experiences. Half of the Republican candidates have worked in the Montana Secretary of State’s Office already.
Candidate Brad Johnson of East Helena says his experience as Montana’s former secretary of state from 2005 to 2009 and his successful race for the Public Service Commission in 2014 make him the best candidate for the Republican ticket.
"I not only have the experience, I have the proven electability and that’s what the primary is about, is picking the most qualified candidate that can be elected and that’s me."
Johnson says he’s ready to pick up where he left off after he lost his reelection bid for Secretary of State in 2008 to Democrat Linda McCulloch. He says he wants to build on what he says are previous successes, including the development of Montana’s first state-wide voter registration database that resulted from a federal law passed in 2002.
NO: You said there were other Republican candidates with experience in the Secretary of State’s Office?
RC: Yes, Christi Jacobsen is currently the Deputy Secretary of State. She says she could hit the ground running on day one and continue working to update the state’s 20-year-old elections system. Jacobsen was endorsed by the current Secretary of State, Corey Stapleton, who is leaving the position to run in Montana’s U.S. House race.
Jacobsen says she has a record of improving services for businesses and voters while reducing government spending and staff.
"Going forward, I would like to make sure we have, maintain the lowest business filing fees in the country and make sure that continues for our businesses, especially with the current times, and with the voters, just strengthening the integrity of our elections."
Jacobsen says she opposes automatic online voter registration, which she calls a gateway to undocumented immigrants voting. Jacobsen and candidate Bowen Greenwood of Helena say they want to protect in-person voting.
Greenwood says there are three reasons why he’s the Republican Party’s best candidate to win the general election in the fall.
"Number one, I have worked in the office before. I can walk into the Secretary of State’s Office and start making effective change on day one. Number two, I have a record of running a state agency in a fiscally conservative manner at the Clerk’s Office and number three, I was just on the state-wide ballot on the last election cycle."
Greenwood was the press secretary for the office from 2006 to 2009 and was elected Republican Clerk of the Montana Supreme Court in 2018, a position he currently holds. He proposes hiring an election integrity officer whose job would be to listen to Montanans’ complaints about irregularities in the way election laws are carried out.
NO: So what are the other Republican candidates saying?
RC: Forrest Mandeville of Columbus says it’s time for new, conservative leadership in the office.
"Plain and simple, I’m the only candidate that has both the combination of legislative experience and the professional background to do an effective job in the Secretary of State’s Office."
Mandeville says he’s been on the front lines of election law bills as a representative in the Montana legislature.
He says he also stands out from the other candidates because he runs a land use consulting company. Mandeville says he can be a peer to small business owners because he knows what it’s like to register a business and file annual reports. He says he could also provide a unique perspective on the land board with his experience in development.
Scott Sales of Bozeman also touts his experience in business and the state legislature. Sales is a former Speaker of the House, and his current position as Senate President is termed out. He has said he’ll prioritize strengthening communication between the counties and the Secretary of State’s Office if elected.
Sales was in the legislature when the vote on same-day voter registration came up in 2005. He opposed it then. He didn’t respond to YPR’s requests for an interview. Here’s what he told one of our reporters last year.
"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 recorder's office and get registered to vote a couple days before the election."
The sixth Republican in the race, Kurt Johnson of Missoula, did not list his contact information when he filed as a candidate and has no visible campaign online.
NO: OK, so who’s on the ballot on the Democratic side?
RC: Bryce Bennett of Missoula is running uncontested. He’s currently a state senator and the executive director of a non-profit, the Montana Public Interest Research Group. He says one of his top priorities is addressing dark money in elections.
"I’ll continue to take on people like the Koch brothers and force them out of the shadows because I believe we need a secretary of state who will be more focused on your voice than the ones of the people who line their campaign coffers."
Bennett says he also wants to work with cyber security experts to make Montana’s voter registration lists and election results resistant to hackers and supports online voter registration.
NO: How does money play a role in all this?
RC: Campaign finance records show Bennet spent slightly over $1200 on his campaign as of Apr. 15.
On the Republican side, Christi Jacobsen’s campaign costs were over $128,000. The second most expensive campaign was Scott Sales at around $92,000, followed by Forrest Mandeville with over $43,000.
NO: Well, Rachel, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.
RC: Thanks, Nicky.