The two candidates in Montana's secretary of state race are committed to protecting the integrity of the office, but expressed starkly different visions of what that looks like.
Deputy Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, a Republican from Helena, is running against state Sen. Bryce Bennett, a Democrat from Missoula. The two are looking to fill the spot that will be left vacant by Republican Secretary of State Cory Stapleton at the end of the year. Stapleton lost out this summer in the Republican primary for Montana's sole congressional seat.
In many ways, the race for Stapleton's seat has been defined by his tenure and some of the controversial — and sometimes costly — decisions he made as Montana's secretary of state.
Earlier this summer, the state Supreme Court denied Stapleton's efforts to keep Green Party candidates on state ballots after it was proven in court that the state's Republican Party, not the Green Party, had covertly worked to put them there. Stapleton then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court for intervention; it declined to the hear the case.
Two years ago, his office had to correct the state voter's guide at a cost of $265,000 when errors were found. The secretary of state's office quickly went to bid for the correction print job, eventually awarding it to Jake Eaton's print shop, UltraGraphics in Billings, the best of the three bids. The move created headlines at the time; Eaton is a Republican political consultant and former executive of the state GOP.
For Bennett, trying to return integrity in the secretary of state's office was a big reason he decided to run. He grew up in eastern Montana, where politics took a back seat to neighbors rallying to help fix irrigation lines or fill and place sandbags to keep homes from flooding.
"That's the small town spirit that got me involved in politics," he said. "I don't see these values in today's secretary of state office."
The lawsuits in which Stapleton and the secretary of state's office have been involved were about advancing partisan politics, he said. All the while he was doing things like gutting the business services office, he said.
Jacobsen is proud of the work she and Stapleton did in their office to cut down the bureaucracy around registering businesses and other services. Through attrition they reduced the staff in the office from 60 people to 40 and closed its four locations to one, moving many services online.
"We've done amazing things," she said.
The state was the first to roll out an all-digital filing system to register new businesses, and Montana has some of the lowest registration fees in the country, she said.
"We need to keep the bureaucracy out of it," she said.
Bennett agrees that bureaucracy can be reduced, but he said small business owners from around the state have told him as he's campaigned that the recent cutbacks have simply slowed and complicated the process.
Jacobsen has had a 20-year career in both public and private sectors, and said she understands the concerns of business owners and will work to continue to make the secretary of state's office business-friendly.
She said she'll also be an advocate for voters. She supports Montana's absentee voter system but said those who want to vote in person should continue to have that option.
Bennett has talked about the importance of making it easier, not harder, for Montanans to vote. Stapleton got himself into trouble in 2017 when, echoing national Republican talking points, he alleged voter fraud was a problem in Montana. After producing no evidence and receiving intense pushback from county elections officials, he backed away from those claims.
Voter fraud was again used as justification this year when the secretary of state's office defended the law, passed by voter referendum in 2018, barring the collection of ballots by a third party. Last month, a judge declared in the lawsuit that there was scant evidence of voter fraud in Montana.
Jacobsen said the purpose of the secretary of state's office is to protect the integrity of the vote, something she's committed to doing.
"My full intention is follow the law," she said.
Election Day is Nov. 3. Election officials say voters should vote early to ensure their mailed ballots are counted.
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