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Montana 2021 Legislature

County Officials Oppose Bill Mandating Elected Elections Administrators, Support Mail Ballot Watching Proposal

Screen capture of Sen. Gordy Vance speaking into a microphone, maskless, while a woman looks on.
Montana Public Affairs Network
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Republican Sen. Gordy Vance introduces Senate Bill 92 to the Senate State Administration Committee on Jan. 25, 2020.

County officials on Monday expressed widespread opposition to a bill that would require elections administrators to be voted into office through partisan contests. They also expressed support for a proposal related to mail ballot drop off spots.

Belgrade Republican Sen. Gordy Vance said while introducing Senate Bill 92 that county elections administrators should answer to voters on a regular basis.

“Elections are important enough that the folks that run them should be held accountable to the people that vote," Vance said.

Elected clerks and recorders already oversee elections in many of Montana’s 56 counties.

Meanwhile, elections administrators are appointed by commissioners in eight counties, ranging in size from Montana’s smallest to largest. Another two counties are considering the option, said bill opponent Shantil Siaperas with the Montana Association of Counties.

Siaperas said counties may switch to appointed elections administrators if there’s too much work for a clerk and recorder to handle with their other duties or if a clerk doesn’t want to oversee their own election.

That’s why Lake County switched to an appointed elections administrator position in 1984, according to Commissioner William Barron. He was among the county officials who testified in opposition to the bill over fears that it would limit local control and amplify political tensions among residents.

“If you have a Democrat administrator, the Republicans don’t trust them and vice versa. An appointed position under commissioners gives the public a higher level of trust if an issue in an election does arise,” Barron said.

State Elections Director Dana Corson with the Secretary of State's office was among the bill’s two proponents. He also offered support for Senate Bill 93, which would require county elections officials to allow observers at mail-ballot drop off locations.

Sen. Vance said he brought the bill forward in response to the 2020 election, which most counties held with greater mail-in ballot access. Vance said he heard from Montanans who were barred from watching ballot drop off locations.

Representatives of the Montana Association of Counties and Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders testified in support of the bill.

The Senate Administration Committee hasn’t scheduled votes on senate bills 92 or 93 yet.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report For America statehouse reporter.