It’s a rematch — and not a particularly friendly one — for secretary of state this year between Democratic incumbent Linda McCulloch and Brad Johnson, the Republican she ousted from the job in 2008.
McCulloch narrowly defeated Johnson by 5,305 votes in 2008 in a race where 473,851 votes were cast. She was helped by the third-party Constitution Party candidate Sieglinde Sharbono drawing 11,722 votes.
This year, Libertarian Roger Roots, of Livingston, is running as a third-party candidate for secretary of state. So far he hasn't raised any money. He did not return a reporter’s call.
The secretary of state is Montana’s chief election official, and the office is where Montana businesses make their annual filings. The secretary also is one of five statewide elected officials on the state Land Board, which oversees management of the 5.2 million acres of school trust land.
The job pays $86,018 annually. The office has about 60 employees.
McCulloch and Johnson disagree on most issues, except both say they have voted consistently on the State Land Board to develop Montana’s natural resources for the benefit of schools.
McCulloch criticized Johnson’s fiscal management of the office during his term. She successfully blocked what she called Johnson’s illegal attempt to pay $58,000 in bonuses to his nine top appointed officials who were leaving the office after McCulloch took over.
Meanwhile, Johnson is pushing to strengthen state election security by requiring all Montana voters to show a voter ID with a photo before they can vote and eliminate election-day voter registration.
McCulloch said it would be a costly and unnecessary change because there’s no evidence of fraud in Montana elections.
Johnson also wants to end Election Day voter registration, which McCulloch supports.
While McCulloch wants Montana to go to a vote-by-mail system for most elections, Johnson opposes it.
Here’s a look at some of the details:
-- Office management. McCulloch cited her fiscal management of the office in contrast to Johnson’s previous four years.
“When I took over the office, it was almost a million dollars in the red and it had been in the red for three straight years,” she said. “I stopped $60,000 in illegal bonuses the first week in office.”
She cited figures from her fiscal officer showing the office posted operating losses under Johnson.
“Paying your bills by draining your savings account isn't fiscal responsibility,” she said.
He disagreed, providing Legislative Audit Division figures showing the office under him had a positive ending fund balance each year and posted no debt.
“Every year the bills were paid and we had a million-dollar fund balance,” he said.
Johnson said that at the direction of the Legislative Auditor’s office, he began spending down the balance to develop a new computer system.
McCulloch stopped the $58,000 in bonuses authorized by Johnson after the chief legal counsel for the state Department of Administration ruled them illegal.
Johnson, however, said he did nothing wrong, according to his office human resources official.
-- Elections security. Johnson has a six-point plan to beef up state election laws to prevent voter fraud, with the cornerstone requirement for all voters to show a photo ID.
Now under Montana law, people must show a Montana driver’s license or ID card, but they can also show a utility bill or other forms of identification without photos when they vote.
“It’s a matter of maintaining the confidence that people have in the outcome of the elections process,” Johnson said. “We see increasing instances of voter fraud being documented in other states. I want to prevent it in Montana.”
McCulloch said Montana’s voter ID already meets the federal law. Johnson’s proposal would be a costly and unnecessary, she said, because Montana elections are “secure and fraud-free.”
-- Same-day voter registration. Johnson wants to cut off voter registration at 5 p.m. the Friday before an election, while McCulloch favors keeping the existing 2005 law that allows people to register and vote up to 8 p.m. on Election Day.
He said it has created “a myriad of logistical problems” for county election officials.
McCulloch said those problems occurred only in 2006 when Johnson failed to help counties plan for the change. Since then, she said her office has worked with counties to help plan for it.
-- Vote by mail. McCulloch said she again will ask the Legislature to approve a bill to change most Montana elections to a vote-by-mail system.
“I believe in saving taxpayer money,” she said. “There’s a savings (through vote-by-mail) of over $2 million every two years. I also believe in increasing voter participation, and vote by mail does that.”
Johnson disagreed, saying: “I think it is a mistake for us to move to mandating a universal absentee ballot. Any Montana voter that wants to vote early by mail can do that (already).”