A gaggle of Republican candidates are vying for Montanans' primary election votes in hopes of becoming the next secretary of state.
The winner of the six-way Republican primary will go on to face Sen. Bryce Bennett of Missoula, who was the lone Democrat to file for the seat.
Montanans voting in the Republican primary can choose between Clerk of Montana Supreme Court Bowen Greenwood, Deputy Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, Chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission Brad Johnson, a Missoula man named Kurt Johnson, State Rep. Forrest Mandeville and President of the State Senate Scott Sales to represent their party come November.
Kurt Johnson listed no contact information when he filed as a candidate and could not be reached for comment.
Well into a campaign season no one could have predicted, the other five candidates said they are scrambling to get their messages in front of an understandably distracted electorate.
As a current public service commissioner and Montana Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, Brad Johnson estimated Montanans have voted for him "more than a million times." In a political landscape devoid of campaign events, fundraisers and the like, Johnson said that gives him a leg up.
"That translates to some great electability in the general election," Johnson said. "I have demonstrated far greater electability than any of the other candidates that are on the ballot."
Jacobsen, who has spent the last nearly four years as deputy secretary of state, might be the sharpest contrast to the rest of the mostly career politicians and said that will help her stand out to voters.
"I'm not a politician. I'm not looking for the next best political opportunity," Jacobsen said. "I'm qualified for the job, and I've been doing the job for the last three and a half years."
Mandeville, a six-year legislator from Columbus, said it is his history as a small business owner he expects to catch primary voters' attention.
"I'm also really the only small businessman in the race, the only one who's really dependent on their small business to survive, to support my family," Mandeville said. "Having a businessman's perspective in there is very valuable."
Sales pointed to his leadership experience and strong working relationships with fellow lawmakers forged in 16 years of Montana Legislature fire.
Greenwood said his record of running the office of the clerk of the Montana Supreme Court under budget should speak volumes to primary voters.
"I have a record of administering a statewide office in a fiscally conservative manner right now," Greenwood said. "We're doing good here, and that's a record I can take to the secretary of state's office."
Aspects of the job the Republicans agreed on included the need for earlier voter registration deadlines and requiring some sort of voter identification card to cast a vote at a polling place.
Greenwood compared the act of voting to buying a beer or gun. He believes that if those two transactions require a government-issued ID, so should voting.
"It's more important than either of those. ... My point is that this is a normal part of American life, and it's time we applied it to voting as well," Greenwood said.
Sales, a longtime Montana legislator, said he met personally with 46 county election administrators across the state before the COVID-19 pandemic derailed his effort to meet with the rest of them. Sales said that of the 46 elections administrators he spoke with, all but two of them expressed a desire to have same-day voter registration rolled back.
"I don't think it's too much to ask for a little personal responsibility from our citizens to get down and register the Friday before the elections," Sales said. "And heck, we don't even argue that someone has to have a valid hunting license on opening day of hunting season."
Most of the candidates also opposed all-mail elections, some referring to voting in person as a right protected by the Constitution.
"It's a constitutional right for people to show up and be able to vote in person," Jacobsen said. "And from the voting community, I've heard across the state people that like to show up to the polls, show up and vote in person, want to continue with that."
In March, Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock issued an emergency directive allowing counties to conduct this election primarily by mail to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, Bullock's directive requires counties that choose the mail option to allow in-person early voting for those who want it.
Mandeville described the governor's decision as a power grab.
"I honestly think he's using the pandemic to push his policy positions," Mandeville said. "He's been pushing for an all-mail ballot for a while."
Jacobsen decried fellow candidate Sales for supporting the governor's decision on the mail-ballot election, accusing Sales of jumping "on that same narrative."
Sales was the only candidate who offered what he called a "pragmatic" take on elections by mail. He noted that many counties have a hard time hiring poll workers, and that as many as 75% of Montana voters already vote by mail. He said the secretary of state should be striving to make such elections more secure rather than fighting against the current.
"I haven't supported it in the past, but I'm pragmatic enough to see that that's how people are voting, and they're going to vote more like that in the future I believe," Sales said. "My mind isn't made up one way or the other, but we need to make sure we have as good a safeguard in place as possible to protect the security and integrity of the system."
In addition to administering myriad election laws, the secretary of state's office is also responsible for registering new businesses and collecting annual reports from corporations.
The Republicans looking to replace outgoing Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton all applauded his efforts to run the office like a business and streamline the process for new business owners.
Johnson said he began the arduous task of dragging the office into the 21st century back in 2005 during his tenure as secretary of state. He said that while much of the business-facing side of the office had been modernized and digitized, office staff was still operating with hard copies of every filing.
"I think we can make it even more user-friendly than it is," Johnson said, adding that he'd like to see "a button" added to the office's webpage that directs Treasure State entrepreneurs to a "one-stop shop" of information needed to successfully launch a business.
"It would be nice for the secretary of state's office to gather all that information in one place and make it easily accessible," he said.
Mandeville said attentiveness to the customers' needs should be a constant priority.
"You have to keep working to provide good customer service because business people don't have time and they shouldn't be expected to sit on a phone for an hour or all day trying to get an answer they need to register their business or file an annual report or whatever," Mandeville said.
While Stapleton was the face of the office, it was Jacobsen who helped implement changes to its business services that have improved the overall process.
Jacobsen said she and her staff reduced the yearly average of filing errors by more than 50,000. She also said staff in the secretary of state's office have made a concerted effort to reduce wait times.
"So we're responding to them quicker. With their filings, we're turning their filings around within a day," Jacobsen said. "And so those are all really good services that we've done, and we want to obviously continue with that great service."
Sales said recent efforts to move the processes entirely online are beneficial, but he is concerned about some folks being left behind.
"(I)f you can't find a public library, or you don't have internet yourself or something, it puts the burden on some individuals, especially those that are older and maybe aren't as well versed in technology and the internet," Sales said. "So, I just think it's incumbent upon us and it's a good idea to remember that we work for the citizen. They don't work for us."
As one of the state's top elected officials, the secretary of state also serves on the State Board of Land Commissioners. Land board commissioners are tasked with managing Montana's school trust lands for the financial benefit of public education.
Jacobsen said she is not well-versed in land board issues, but that reducing the amount of red tape required for resource development projects would be a good place to start.
"I haven't dived deep in that, but I think once I get in, I would start looking at, you know, unnecessary bureaucracy and eliminating unnecessary bureaucracy," Jacobsen said.
The candidates all noted that while funding Montana's public schools is the top priority, there is plenty of room for environmental stewardship.
Sales said Montana's strict environmental laws paired with technological advancements in natural resource development will allow the land board to have it both ways.
"We can have a clean and sound environment and at the same time we can utilize the resources on these state lands for the benefit of the schools," Sales said.
Sales, whose voting record is pro-resource development, said that as an avid outdoorsman, public access is also important to him.
"(W)e need to provide as much public access to these public lands for people to recreate on as possible, as long as it doesn't unnecessarily, unduly interfere with the money-making aspect of what we're chartered to do on those lands," Sales said.
Other candidates took a more hard-line approach to the topic.
"A person might want to say, 'I want to be a conservationist' or 'I want to use the land board to address global warming,' but in many cases that's not really your job, and you're not doing your duty if you're not looking at how to raise the most money for Montana schools," Greenwood said.
Mandeville said his background as a land use consultant will lend itself well to work on the land board.
"I'll be able to be that liaison between the land board and the public, the people who live near those developments, the county commissioners who are going to be working with us as we go through those developments," Mandeville said.
Johnson cited his previous record on the land board as an example of how he intends to balance the mandate of maximizing profits, a desire for increasing access to public lands, and the protecting of private property rights.
"So it's a balancing act," Johnson said. "But again, when I was there, I thought the board did a pretty good job of that, respecting private land owners interests while at the same time opening up an awful lot of acreage to public access."
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