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Don’t mess with Montana’s good elections

by Mike Cooney, Bob Brown and Linda McCulloch
| April 16, 2023 12:00 AM

As Montana Secretaries of State, both Democratic and Republican, for 24 years we supervised Montana’s elections. Working with the extremely competent county, city and school district clerks, administrators other local government entities, and an army of bi-partisan and non-partisan volunteers in communities across the state, we have helped establish a record of safe, secure, efficiently-run and accurate Montana elections.

House Bill 774 is a clear and present danger to that sterling Montana record — a hasty and poorly-thought-out attempt to force virtually all elections onto one day and one ballot. This 118-page bill will bring chaos, complications and confusion to Montana voters, not clarity.

Picture a 6-foot-long ballot with everything on it including federal races (president, Senate and House); state races (governor/lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general, auditor, superintendent of public instruction, clerk of the Supreme Court, Supreme Court justices); regional races (Public Service Commission, district judges); legislative races (for 150 state representatives or state senators); county races (commissioners, sheriffs, clerks and recorders, and all other elected officials); city and town races (mayors, council members, clerks, etc.); school board races; local bond and levy issues of all kinds; state legislative referenda and Constitutional Amendments; all citizen-driven initiatives; local districts such as soil conservation districts, irrigation districts, recreation districts, and more.

Citizens deserve elections where they can see candidates and issues with clarity. Passage of HB 774 will rob voters of their capacity to cast a knowledgeable vote on all of those offices and issues. We all know how important the work of our local government and school district officials is to the everyday functioning of our communities. Flooding the even year election this way will affect the ability of candidates in smaller, local races to get their message heard. At the bottom of the 6-foot-long ballot, competing with all those federal, statewide, legislative races, ballot issues etc., they will not get the public attention and awareness they deserve.

With millions of dollars of advertising for the high profile, partisan races barraging voters, consuming their attention and often confusing them, what is to happen to our important local decisions that require voter attention and voter participation? By the time voters get toward the bottom of that 6-foot-long ballot, fatigue will set in. Many voters will give up before they find the bottom of the ballot. That is a fact: the longer a ballot, the more likely it is that voters don’t complete it. Montanans — our local governmental structures, offices and issues — deserve better.

In addition to voter chaos and confusion, administration of this monster of an election structure would be a nightmare. Roosevelt County’s election officials testified to the Legislature that they would have 105 distinct ballot styles to manage (create, send out and count). Multiply that by 56 counties. Those who run our safe, secure and accurate elections call this whole idea a mess.

Where did this idea come from? You won’t find a single legislative candidate who ran for election based upon this concept. But once 150 legislators get together with time on their hands, plenty of strange ideas to emerge and become bills. As of today, a record 1,535 bills have been introduced to create or change Montana law. We know from experience, and you know from common sense, that hundreds of those bills do not deserve to become law. HB 774 is one of them.

Our election system isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it with this recipe for disaster. Before Montana leaps off the electoral cliff, hoping for a soft landing, HB 774 ought to be killed outright. Montana voters deserve better.

Montana Secretaries of State Mike Cooney (D-Helena, 1989-2001), Bob Brown (R-Whitefish, 2001-2005) and Linda McCulloch (D-Missoula, 2009-2017).