Montana Editorial Roundup
Billings Gazette, Nov. 14, on outsiders spending big on Montana elections:
Montanans were more vocal than ever about our elections this year, judging from the hundreds of letters and other comments that poured into The Billings Gazette.
Unfortunately, that vigorous statewide debate was often skewed by political spenders who aren’t even Montana residents.
The U.S. Senate race between Sen. Jon Tester and State Auditor Matt Rosendale drew tens of millions of dollars in outside spending — mostly for tailoring negative advertising to bash one candidate or the other.
For example, a week before the Nov. 6 election, Libertarian U.S. Senate candidate Rick Breckenridge announced that he was withdrawing as a candidate and supporting Rosendale because of a mailing from an unidentified spender that seemed intent on taking votes from Rosendale.
Days earlier, many Montanans received a mailing riddled with incorrect and misleading information on absentee voting. That mailing from an out-of-state Republican organization could have cost Montanans their right to have their votes counted — if they had followed instructions that were contrary to Montana law.
A week before that, left-leaning out-of-state organizations mailed absentee ballot request forms to Montana voters, telling them that they had not yet requested absentee ballots. That caused considerable confusion for recipients who had already requested their ballots. County elections offices were deluged with calls from voters, some of whom received two or more of those mailings.
The most egregious example of out-of-state spending in our General Election was the campaign against Initiative 185. Proposed by Montana health care organizations, led by the Montana Hospital Association, I-185 would have raised taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products, started taxing vaping items and directed the new revenue toward health care for Montana veterans, seniors and low-income individuals. The measure would have continued the Medicaid program that covers 96,000 adults and is set to expire next summer. By raising taxes on tobacco products, I-185 would have reduced the number of smokers in our state, and stopped more young people from starting an unhealthy habit by making it more expensive.
The manufacturers of Camel and Marlboro cigarettes spent in excess of $17 million to defeat I-185. Big Tobacco succeeded in misleading voters through a campaign committee called Montanans Against Tax Hikes. To be accurate, the committee should have been called: Big Tobacco against Tobacco Tax Hikes.
Supreme Court rules
Until several years ago, Montana prohibited such corporate spending in our elections. In 1912, Montana voters enacted the Corrupt Practices Act, banning direct corporate contributions to state elections. The people acted to take control of elections that had been marred for decades by bribery in a state largely controlled by the Anaconda Copper Co.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizen United v. Federal Elections Commission struck down a federal law limiting corporate elections spending. Within months, proponents of moneyed interests sued to overturn Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Montana law, too.
The Supreme Court justices appointed by President Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavenaugh, support unlimited campaign spending, so the court now more heavily favors corporations.
Besieged with unlimited outside spending, Montanans still have the right to know who is spending how much.
In 2015, Gov. Steve Bullock and a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers led by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, enacted the Disclose Act that requires political candidates and other campaign spenders to disclose the sources and uses of campaign cash and cleared the way for searchable online reports.
Support Montana’s COPP
In our state, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan is the public’s campaign watchdog. Confirmed by the state Senate and appointed by Bullock, Mangan and his hard-working staff of six receive and post campaign finance reports for state, district and local candidates, along with reports from committees spending for and against ballot issues and candidates. The COPP investigates complaints of state campaign finance violations. This small office makes information available quickly to citizens so we can know the sources of political spending.
In past legislatures, the COPP has been targeted for budget cuts by lawmakers who disagreed with something the commissioner did. In recent sessions, some lawmakers have sought to severely restrict the independent commissioner’s authority to enforce campaign laws.
We call on Republicans and Democrats serving in 2019 to support the COPP as a neutral referee. The COPP must have the authority, the staff and funding to do the vital work of keeping Montana elections fair and campaign spending transparent.
Lawmakers who care about the integrity of Montana elections should vote in the 2019 session to ensure that Mangan can keep doing his job effectively for the citizens of this great state.
Missoulian, Nov. 13, on letting elections officials start processing ballots earlier:
Long after the polls closed last Tuesday, elections officials remained hard at work, processing ballots and running vote-counting machines all through the night and well into the next day.
The night wouldn’t be nearly so long if elections officials were allowed to start counting the mail-in ballots that have already been returned and are just sitting around in boxes. Unfortunately, state law bars them from preparing ballots any earlier.
When they convene in January 2019, legislators should look at relieving some of this burden from our hard-working elections officials, especially since a newly passed referendum promises to cause even more headaches in future elections — for voters and election workers alike.
Legislative Referendum 129, approved by 63 percent of Montana voters last Tuesday, establishes the Montana Ballot Interference Prevention Act — essentially making it a criminal offense, punishable by a fine of up to $500 per ballot, for certain people to handle someone else’s ballot. This means the end of those convenient ballot drop boxes, because the only way for elections officials to know if the right people are turning in the right ballots is to personally oversee their return, including keeping a registry of signatures with contact information for both the voter and the ballot deliverer. Further, LR129 limits the number of ballots any one individual may collect to six.
The next election will demonstrate how much these additional hurdles hinder access for would-be voters. In any case, LR-129 ensures our election workers will have more work to do next Election Day.
Elections officials are already handling more ballots than ever. In the latest election cycle, nearly half a million Montana voters returned ballots. Nearly 60,000 ballots were cast in Missoula County alone.
And a sizable portion of these ballots were returned well before Election Day. In Missoula County, than 58,700 absentee ballots were mailed in October, representing the lion’s share of the county’s 83,000 registered voters. A full week before Election Day, the elections office had already received more than 20,000 ballots.
Thousands of Missoula County voters may have turned in their ballots early, but elections officials couldn’t start counting them early. Indeed, unexpected glitches — such as voter errors, broken machines or surges in same-day registrations — only add to the burden and cause longer delays.
In the most recent election, Missoula County received a record number of provisional ballots: 1,700. More than 1,321 people signed up for same-day voter registration, which led to hour-long waits as the line stretched to almost 300 people deep at times. Early Wednesday morning, one of the county’s three ballot-counting machines broke down and remained out of operation for seven hours.
In the state’s most populous county, Yellowstone, elections administrators advised the public ahead of time that the second ballot page, the one containing Initiatives 185 and 186, would not be fully counted until the following day.
Currently, elections officials cannot start preparing ballots for counting until the day before Election Day, and actual vote tabulation cannot begin until the polls open at 7.a.m. on Election Day.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Several other states allow elections officials to start preparing ballots a week or more before Election Day. A handful of states even allow elections officials to start processing absentee ballots as they come back to the elections office, and Montana could take a close look at best practices in those places to assure the continued integrity of elections here.
The security measures that are already in place would remain in place, of course, with all ballots sealed, logged and stored in a secure location. As an additional precaution against possible computer errors, ballot-counting machines have audit logs that are subject to review on demand.
The Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders has repeatedly proposed changing the law to allow ballot preparation to begin three business days before Election Day. Since Election Day always falls on a Tuesday, this means officials could start preparing ballots on the Thursday before Election Day, and start counting ballots on the Monday before Election Day, thus freeing up valuable time to better serve voters who fill out their ballots on Election Day.
In spite of bipartisan votes, the proposal has yet to pass both legislative chambers. When the 2019 Legislature convenes, lawmakers should update the ballot-processing timeline to allow Montana’s counties to keep pace with evolving elections.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Nov. 11, on Legislature needing to expand publicly funded preschool:
Now that the dust has settled from the Nov. 6 election, state lawmakers are about to set the table for the 2019 Legislature. A top priority on that menu needs to be an expansion of publicly funded preschool.
The lasting benefits of preschool education have been well-documented. Kids who attend a preschool as 4-year-olds are far more likely to succeed in elementary and high school and go on to productive careers. It has been demonstrated that these students are less likely to run afoul of the law or become dependent on welfare programs.
Up until last year, Montana was one of just a handful of states lacking publicly funded preschool. Gov. Steve Bullock has been pushing lawmakers for years to provide funding for such a program. In 2017, the Legislature passed a $6 million, two-year pilot program. That provided preschool education for a very limited number of children. An evaluation report on the program’s first year found that those children’s test scores improved significantly over the course of the year and nearly all were deemed ready for kindergarten.
Bullock has said he plans to advocate for permanent preschool funding. At a meeting last month in Missoula, the Montana School Boards Association set pre-school funding as one of its priorities for the 2019 legislative session. That organization is advocating double spending on preschool to $12 million for the next biennium.
Republicans will maintain a majority in the upcoming session. GOP lawmakers have been reluctant to increase spending on any programs. But what those lawmakers need to realize is the funding for a preschool program is an investment that will pay big dividends in the future. Study after study have shown kids who attend preschool are more successful in the K-12 years, are more likely to go on to post-secondary education and stable employment and far less likely to become a societal burden that will sap public resources.
The School Boards Association and Bullock need to present that evidence to lawmakers when they convene in January and convince them that spending a little now will save big in the coming years.