Montana Editorial Roundup
Missoulian, Jan. 28, on democracy requiring volunteers:
For nearly a year now, the Missoula County Elections Office has withstood attacks from Montana’s secretary of state over its ability to conduct fair elections.
It started out as a blanket charge by Secretary of State Corey Stapleton against mail balloting for last year’s special congressional election. Nearly every county in the state argued that a mail-ballot election would save a lot of money. But Stapleton urged state legislators to oppose mail ballots, bizarrely noting that three states — he was referring specifically to Colorado, Oregon and Washington — that allow all-mail ballots have also legalized marijuana use.
Missoula County Elections Supervisor Rebecca Connors reached out to Stapleton, hoping to convince him to change his position. Instead, some months later he announced that the special election had been plagued by voter fraud, casting doubt over the integrity of the elections process and calling for deeper investigation into security measures.
Last month, Stapleton walked back some of those complaints, tamping down his accusations from “voter fraud” to “voter misconduct.” He says he no longer suspects intentional, coordinated voter fraud in last year’s elections — but is still concerned about incorrectly signed ballots and other mistakes slipping past elections officials.
Now, the Missoula County Elections Office is asking for help from registered voters in Missoula County. It needs to fill another 350 positions for election judges in order to ensure 2018 elections are carried out as smoothly — and securely — as in previous elections. Perhaps even more so.
Every voter in the county ought to seriously consider answering this call. And anyone who has even one drop of doubt as to the integrity of local elections absolutely must volunteer as an election judge, and witness the process firsthand. We are confident it will confirm that elections in Missoula are handled with the utmost attention to accuracy.
That’s not to say there is no room for improvement. Direct experience with the elections process is a good way to wrap one’s mind around the challenges and opportunities currently facing the local elections office, and be informed enough to offer constructive suggestions.
One of those challenges is the growing trend toward all-mail ballot elections, rather than traditional polling places. Elections officials across the nation say it not only saves precious dollars, it may become a necessity if enough people don’t volunteer as elections judges to keep polling locations staffed.
The Missoula County Elections Office aims to train 800 people to help with elections in a wide variety of functions, from polling place managers to recount judges. However, with training sessions set to begin in just a couple of weeks, it is short of that goal by nearly 350 people.
“The number of election judges is directly tied to the quality of customer service the Elections Office can provide voters over the 2018 election year,” the office explained in its call for help. “A lack of elections judges can equate to any number of deficiencies in delivering services to voters including longer lines, understaffed polling places (which could lead to consolidating polling places), fewer judges to register new voters, and overworked judges.”
Nobody — not even the most ardent proponents of all-mail balloting — wants to see that happen.
To qualify to be an election judge, an individual must:
. Be registered to vote in Missoula County
. Be willing and able to help set up a polling place
. Provide excellent customer service
. Operate voting equipment
. Ensure all qualified voters are permitted to vote
. Distribute ballots to voters
. Assist all voters
. Close down the polling place following voting
. Attend annual training
The position does require a two-year commitment; however, it’s also a paid position, with wages starting at minimum wage and increasing for those willing to take on additional hours and duties.
It is a civic duty everyone ought to take responsibility for at least once, even if just for a single two-year stint. At last count there were approximately 80,000 registered voters in Missoula County. If 800 individuals volunteered every year, the elections office would be set for a century.
Last week, Missoula County commissioners named a new elections administrator, Dayna Causby, to head the election office. The new elections administrator will need to get a running start, because it will be her job to lead the Missoula County Elections Office through what is shaping up to be another busy, contentious election year.
In 2018, Missoula County will hold a school election in May, primaries in June and a general election in November. Candidate filing opened earlier this month, and races are shaping up for U.S. House and Senate, as well as for state legislative seats. In Missoula, incumbents and challengers alike are hoping voters will support their bids to become Missoula County commissioner, Missoula County Attorney or Missoula County sheriff. There are candidates for district court judges, the Montana Public Service and Supreme Court justice.
Running for public office is an important and downright noble thing to do. But it isn’t for everyone.
Volunteering as an election judge is. It’s time for Missoula County voters to step up and help ensure that our elections remain accessible, accurate and secure.
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Jan. 28, on money for parks and trails serving well:
Government often takes the rap for everything that’s cumbersome, wasteful and inefficient — and sometimes those criticisms are justified. But there are other occasions when government gets it right, and we should take note when it does.
Last week, pretty much the last of a $15 million of a Trails, Open Space and Parks bond issue was allocated for additional funding for soccer fields at the Bozeman Sports Park. The $15 million bond issue was passed by voters in 2012 — by a 3-to-1 margin, something almost unheard of for a ballot measure that imposes taxes on the voters who approve it. That set off a process that has unfolded in the ensuing five years.
Among the things that have been accomplished with this money:
. Easements were purchased for trails to be completed from the town proper to the “M,” completing an essential component of the city’s enviable trail system.
. Money was has been dedicated for the development of Story Mill Park. It’s expected to be open to the public in the fall and will be the cornerstone of the city’s park system.
. Badly needed playing fields will be built for the city’s thousands of youth soccer players.
. Bozeman Creek was restored to a more natural state as it meanders through Bogert Park.
. Bozeman Pond Park was expanded and an off-leash dog section was added.
And the money was leveraged to get other matching grants through the help of nonprofit land preservation groups. So ultimately voters got some $24 million worth of expanded parks and trails. And all of the projects will do so much to enhance the quality of life we enjoy.
This has been an example of self-governance at its best. Forward-thinking advocates saw a need to expand the city’s parks and trails. They prevailed upon the city commission to go to the voters for the needed funds. And the voters enthusiastically approved.
Many years from now, Bozemanites will look back with gratitude to all who have participated in this extraordinarily successful effort.
Billings Gazette, Jan. 26, on getting addicts out of Montana prison for good:
The Montana Department of Corrections recently opened a new addiction treatment program at the prison in Deer Lodge, bringing the department’s total treatment capacity to about 500 inmates. That’s just dedicated addiction treatment beds, not including addiction treatment provided in the main Montana State Prison or Montana Women’s Prison buildings.
That sounds like an awful lot of effort devoted to treatment, but considering the volume of substance abusing offenders, the services still fall short of the need.
Possession of dangerous drugs, felony DUI (fourth or subsequent offense) and illegal distribution of dangerous drugs are the top three crimes committed by offenders sentenced to Montana prisons. According to the DOC report to the 2017 Legislature, there were 2,419 drug possession convictions, 1,916 felony DUIs and 1,434 drug trafficking convictions among offenders sent to DOC between 2012 and 2016. Those numbers don’t include offenders convicted of violent or property crimes committed when they under the influence of drugs or while they were attempting to get money for drugs.
Keeping all these addicted offenders locked up is incredibly expensive for Montana taxpayers. The Commission on Sentencing study conducted in 2015-2016 found that the state would need to build more prisons soon — unless it more effectively treated offender addictions. The commission of lawmakers, corrections, court and treatment experts found that drug-related arrests increased 62 percent statewide between 2009 and 2015.
The Montana State Correctional Treatment Center is a step in the right direction. This new treatment program is housed in a building that previously was used for the prison “boot camp,” a program that had no research to support its effectiveness in preventing recidivism but which Montana law required DOC to operate. The 2017 Legislature wisely accepted the recommendation to remove the boot camp mandate. The department has followed through with a plan to convert that space to an evidence-based intensive treatment program.
The DOC treatment programs operate in secure facilities. Inmates can’t just walk away. The test of the program’s success comes when offenders return to their communities. That’s why community corrections — parole officers, pre-release centers and re-entry coordinators — are integral to keeping addicts drug free. Montana probation and parole officers have very large caseloads, especially in Billings, which has more offenders under community supervision than any other city in the state. Billings area lawmakers should pay attention to that fact when they set the next biennial budget.
“The ultimate goal is to give inmates the tools to cope with the stresses of living in society without relapsing into alcohol or drug use,” DOC Director Reginald Michael said in a news release.
DOC reports that its addiction treatment protocols are consistent with standards set by the American Society of Addiction Medicine. The state can’t afford to guess at what might work; Montana must use strategies that are proven to yield the best results for getting addicts out of the cycle of drug abuse and criminal activity. None of the solutions are cheap or quick, but the alternative is more taxpayer expense and more crime.
With an austere budget, DOC is moving slowly in the right direction. Keeping offenders off drugs is the only way to keep them out of prison long term.