Candidates for statewide offices in Montana are gearing up for next year’s primaries. Democratic Montana Senator Bryce Bennett announced his campaign for Secretary of State in May. He spoke with YPR News’ Jess Sheldahl about advocating for voting access, election security and how he’d work across the aisle if elected.
Jess Sheldahl: Thank you so much for coming and speaking with us today Senator Bennett. Your past work experience outside the legislature is closely tied to politics and voter rights first with Forward Montana and then MontPIRG. Can you describe how your past experiences might influence you as Secretary of State?
Bryce Bennett: Sure. You know, the work that I've done before has been about advocating for voting rights and making sure that more people are able to participate in the process. I've done a lot of work out in knee-deep snow trying to make sure that people are registered to vote and no matter whether people were Republicans or Democrats or Independents or somewhere in between, I've tried to make sure that more people have access to their democracy.
JS: In a letter to the Richland County Clerk and Recorder on July 24th, the current Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton said he thinks it'll take longer than his original goal of 2020 to implement a new election system in Montana, changing the software used to count votes. Since the new goal for implementation is 2021 or beyond, when, if you win the election, you would be in office, how would you manage the transition to a new election system in Montana?
BB: Sure. I'm very glad that the Secretary of State finally made the right decision about this because I've been saying for a long time that we can either do this quick or we can do this right. And I think that we proved that this is just not something you want to mess around with to try to implement something very quickly that could really undermine people's right to vote or make our democracy less secure. So I'm excited that we'll be having a process that will ensure that we are methodical and detailed about implementing this new system that will ensure that our democracy is stronger than ever.
JS: After foreign interference with the 2016 presidential election, election security is a concern for a lot of people. What would you do to make sure Montana's elections are secure?
BB: Security is a priority for me. I want to make sure that everyone has absolute confidence that their vote will be counted and their voice will be heard on election day. I want to partner with the National Guard cybersecurity unit to make sure that our security both at the county level, as well as the state level, is more secure than we've seen in ages. I want to make sure that any foreign adversary or domestic adversary that's trying to hack into our system would be foolish to even try.
JS: As Secretary of State you would be a member of the Land Board. One of the pressing issues facing the board is how to support the people of Colstrip as Units 1 and 2 are close down at the Colstrip power plant. What ideas do you have to support the Colstrip community during this transition?
BB: Sure. You know as a member of the legislature, we've been trying for a long time to make sure that there's a strong transition plan for both the community and the workers of Colstrip. I want to make sure that as this community is going through the changes that they're going to experience in their economy, that we're taking care of the workers, that we're making sure that the school districts are strong because they may be losing some of their tax base. We want to make sure that people still have access to clean water and clean air in that area and we want to make sure that the pensions that those folks have been working hard for their whole life are preserved into the future. So I think that a lot of it is about planning early and making sure that the workers are foremost in our minds.
JS: If you're elected as Secretary of State, you would most likely be working with a majority Republican legislature and possibly a Republican governor. How do you work across the aisle without compromising on what you've promised your constituents?
BB: You know I've served in the minority for all five sessions that I've been involved with and despite that, I've been able to pass a number of bills to make sure that our elections are accessible to the voters, to make sure that our democracy is secure so that no one's trying to hack into it and making sure that our elections are accountable to the people of Montana so that it's not dark money or special interests that are trying to run our elections. Despite the fact that I've always been the minority, I've gotten a lot of important things done and I could do it again.
JS: Can you give me a couple of specific examples of times where you were in the minority fighting for something that maybe you got some pushback from on the other side and were able to accomplish what you set out to do?
BB: Absolutely. I think one of the best examples is a bill called the DISCLOSE Act that we passed in 2015. It was a bill that brought Republicans and Democrats together to make sure that dark money isn't running the day here in Montana. We found co-sponsors of both parties in both chambers and made sure that in our elections every penny is accounted for and that elections are transparent.
JS: In your interview with Montana Free Press for their podcast the Montana Lowdown you talked about what you view as the “voter suppression agenda” in the Montana legislature. What policies do you see as voter suppression and how do you propose to address them?
BB: I think that every session we've seen efforts to try to make our elections a little bit harder to access by Montana voters and that's certainly the opposite of what I want to bring to the Secretary of State's office.
I want to make sure that our elections are open and accessible to all Montanans, so I'm going to push back on every effort that I see to try to take away opportunities to vote, trying to take away days that people can vote early, trying to take away the sort of ideas that people can use to identify themselves or even taking away election day registration, which has been a safeguard for so many Montanans to ensure that they have access to their democracy. So I want to make sure that Montanans have more access, not less, so that every eligible Montanan has a chance to have their voice heard.
JS: How do you plan on working with Montana's tribes to ensure that they have access to the polls?
BB: You know, I think the voter suppression agenda that you just mentioned has been even more pervasive when it comes to tribes. I mean, we've seen efforts to send, you know, goons into some of these tribal voting locations to try to scare away tribal voters from being able to participate in their democracy. We've seen efforts to try to take away polling locations on tribal reservations. So I think that we have to be especially sensitive to making sure that the tribal members of Montana, those voters, don't have additional barriers to be able to vote and have their voice heard in their democracy. That's a huge priority for me, which is why I'm traveling around Montana. I'm going to be in Crow Fair this weekend to talk with tribal leaders face-to-face about the issues they're facing.
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 voter turnout in 2020?
BB: Well, I voted against that bill when it made its way through the legislature and I continue to oppose it because I think that Montanans understand that they're never going to give their ballot to somebody they don't trust. But what this bill actually did was make it harder for Montanans to vote. I know there's many people out there who, you know, will hand a ballot to a loved one or to a family member or to their spouse or a co-worker to make sure that their voice gets heard on Election Day. And unfortunately, I think that this bill is going to put up some of those artificial barriers are going to make it harder for people to vote.
JS: Is there anything that Corey Stapleton has done as Secretary of State that you would want to reverse?
BB: You know, I think I've been pretty clear about the fact that I've been discouraged by the way that the current Secretary of State is running his administration and obviously there's many policies and failures in general that I think need to be reversed in that office. But the most important thing that I think that I've seen, you know, unfortunately come out of that office is that he's really frightened people away from their right to vote. I mean, we've heard so many of these claims false claims of voter fraud. He's tried to scare people about absentee voting. And I think you just need somebody in there that actually is going to inspire people to believe in their democracy, somebody that will be an advocate for voting, somebody that will ensure that democracy is something that is accountable to the people of Montana and open and accessible to everyone. That's the voice that I want to be as our Secretary of State. And unfortunately I don't think that we've seen that from our current Secretary of State.
JS: Thank you so much for taking the time to come and talk with Yellowstone Public Radio.
BB: Well thank you so much for the opportunity. I look forward to being back soon.