Credit: Bennett photo by Sara Diggins, Community News Service. Jacobsen photo by Thom Bridge, Independent Record

Last weekend, reports began to surface in California about the appearance of unauthorized ballot drop boxes at numerous locations throughout Los Angeles, Fresno and Orange County. The mystery of their origin dragged on for several days until, on Oct. 12, California Republican Party spokesperson Hector Barajas disclosed under pressure from reporters that his organization was responsible. Barajas claimed there was nothing in state law barring the deployment of the metal boxes, which the New York Times observed were “virtually indistinguishable” from state-sanctioned ones. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla countered Barajas’ statement, saying it was clear the boxes were intended to “mislead voters and erode the public trust.”

Election interference by foreign agents has been a source of widespread concern since 2016, but the ongoing situation in California goes a long way toward illustrating how easy it can be to sow confusion and scandal into the core activity of democracy: voting. In Montana’s 2020 election, no race touches more closely on safeguards to the integrity of the voting process than the statewide showdown between Republican Christi Jacobsen and Democrat Bryce Bennett for secretary of state.

The position — currently occupied by Corey Stapleton, who declined a chance at a second term in favor of an unsuccessful run in the Republican primary for U.S. House this spring — oversees Montana’s election and voter services infrastructure, including the state’s voter rolls and candidate filings for numerous offices. 

Both Jacobsen and Bennett have repeatedly vowed to defend the integrity of Montana’s elections. Jacobsen’s campaign did not respond to multiple email and voicemail requests to interview for this story. But throughout 2020, the Helena native has stated a desire to protect against centralizing election services and to work with the Legislature to define exactly how security should be defined in an election context. Drawing on her experience as deputy secretary of state during Stapleton’s tenure, she’s pointed to the office’s partnership with the federal Department of Homeland Security to probe Montana’s election system for vulnerabilities. 

“We’ve worked really hard on the security issues in the last couple of years to make sure that everything is updated, current, and there are no vulnerabilities,” Jacobsen told Montana Public Radio this month. “So we’ve actually, with the Department of Homeland Security, had them come in and try and penetrate our system, and they were unsuccessful in doing that. So rest assured that this election will be secure.”

Bennett is drawing on a record of his own. Throughout four terms in the state House and one term in the state Senate, the Hysham native has made his name on the issues of campaign finance, election security and voting rights. Speaking to Montana Free Press, Bennett cited a 2017 measure he carried to revise the state’s practice of having absentee voters re-register every two years. In supporting the bill, Yellowstone County Election Administrator Bret Rutherford estimated that his office alone spent “roughly $40,000 every even year” on staff time and postage just making sure voters weren’t dropped from the voter roll.

“We found out that in the 2018 election, because of that bipartisan accomplishment, 72,000 Montanans got a ballot that year who otherwise would have fallen off the list,” Bennett told MTFP. “I think that’s a huge achievement that has made our democracy better, not for Republicans or Democrats, but for all voters.” 

Bennett’s proposed approach involves a heavy helping of personal touch. One of his primary goals on the election front is to visit directly with civic groups, high school students and reservation communities about the importance of voting. 

Another core function of the secretary of state’s office is registering and assisting businesses across Montana. On that front, Bennett said he intends to convene a working group to discuss potential fixes to those processes, and to collaborate with other state agencies to create an “A to Z” checklist for business owners outlining the path from conception to grand opening.

Jacobsen spoke directly to the business services portion of the secretary’s duties during a virtual debate hosted by MTN News last month. She stated that throughout her time as deputy, the office had “absolutely streamlined” the registry process and made it possible for businesses to file with the state anytime, day or night.

“I’ve talked to businesses and they’re very satisfied with it, and we’ve kept our business filings low,” Jacobsen said. “And I promise to all businesses in Montana for the next four years, I will never increase business filings on any Montana business, and will continue to make it easy for businesses to file and access 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with top-notch customer service.”

Jacobsen also noted in that debate that over the past three and a half years, the secretary’s office has cut staff from 60 employees to 40 and saved millions by consolidating from four rented office spaces into one — accomplishments supporting her call to further reduce spending and shrink bureaucracy.

Perhaps the most prominent aspect of the race, however, has been the heated back and forth between the candidates. Stapleton’s time in office has generated several controversies in recent years. In one case, a state audit revealed that Stapleton had misused a state-owned vehicle to commute from his Billings residence to Helena. In another, Stapleton announced a push to update Montana’s election software ahead of the 2020 cycle, prompting backlash from county officials who viewed the effort as rushed and from lawmakers who felt the initiative lacked transparency. These chapters have become a focal point for Bennett, who characterizes the atmosphere of the secretary of state’s office today as one “plagued by corruption and incompetence.” He said the problem has only grown worse under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic. He lays the accountability for much of what he calls a “mess” squarely at Jacobsen’s feet.

“Our county clerks and recorders are clamoring for information, some of them telling me they’re asking important questions like how do we make sure we have enough PPE for the voters that come to vote in person, or for our election judges, and what do we do if our election administrator or one of our chief election judges is sick or has to be quarantined on Election Day,” Bennett said. “They’re getting no answers, no support and absolutely no leadership.”

Jacobsen, in turn, has cast Bennett as liberal bent on increasing bureaucracy and doubling the office’s staff. “I will continue to lead the office and to fight for clean and fair elections, unlike you, who wants to liberalize our elections and turn Montana into California,” she said to Bennett during the MTN News debate. 

One particular point the two have sparred over is the secretary of state’s role as a member of the Montana Land Board. Both candidates have emphasized their support for public access to public lands, and for ensuring that those lands continue to generate revenue for the public school system as Montana’s Constitution directs. Jacobsen appeared to struggle with the topic early in the campaign, confessing she was not well-versed in the Land Board’s duties during the primary. In a candidate interview this month with the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Jacobsen was asked if she supports Habitat Montana, which helps fund conservation easements. She told the paper she would have to follow up, later stating by email that she supports the program.  

Bennett continues to question Jacobsen’s suitability as secretary of state based on that and other issues. Jacobsen continues to counter that having served as Stapleton’s deputy, she’s the candidate with the best insight into the job.

Freelance writer Alex Sakariassen has spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, Sakariassen splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at alex.sakariassen@gmail.com.