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The ballot drop-box outside Missoula County’s midtown election center was the place to be Tuesday afternoon. A lone volunteer in a bright orange vest directed the cars stacked up at the parking lot’s entrance as voters drove through to deposit their absentee ballots. Voters on bicycles clearly had an easier go of it.
But beyond the drop-boxes, Election Day proved far quieter. Reports from Missoula, Bozeman, Billings and Helena indicate that polling place traffic was notably slow throughout those cities. Voters arrived in dribs and drabs, an apparent contrast to the long lines of past elections — and to the sheer amount of money that candidates and committees deployed this spring to drive voter interest. Overall turnout statewide was less than 40%, a dip from 2018, the most recent primary without a presidential race at the top of the ticket, but still a few points higher than other non-presidential primaries in 2014 and 2010.
It’s too early to say exactly what made Tuesday seem so sluggish, but several factors likely played a hand. For starters, 2022 was Montana’s first poll election since November 2018. Municipal and school elections are typically conducted by mail in much of the state, and in 2020, then-Gov. Steve Bullock allowed counties to conduct their elections entirely by mail due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Primary turnout that year was a whopping 55%, far exceeding any primary in the preceding decade.
In other words, many Montanans may have grown accustomed to their ballots arriving in the mail over the past three years, whether they were registered to vote absentee or not. Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder Eric Semerad said he encountered several irate would-be voters Tuesday who’d expected the same this year, and he had to remind them that they weren’t registered to vote absentee.
One factor that county election officials and voting rights advocates feared would hinder access was the 2021 Montana Legislature’s termination of Election Day voter registration. County election officials reported expending significant effort to inform voters about the change. But those same officials noted only scattered instances of voters missing the new deadline and, by extension, their ability to cast a ballot. Tuesday’s totals from the secretary of state’s office show that the number of Montanans registered to vote in this year’s primary was nearly 47,000 higher than in 2020’s primary contest.
November’s general election will likely tell a busier story. General elections usually do. As candidates and county election officials turn their eyes in that direction, it’s a good bet they’ll be keeping these factors front-of-mind. We certainly will.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
Guests at Tippet Rise Art Center take in the views at Inverted Portal, a sculpture by Ensamble Studios. Credit: Erik Petersen, courtesy of Tippet Rise.
Tippet Rise, the outdoor arts center situated on 12,500 acres in the shadow of the Beartooth Mountains near Fishtail, includes a working ranch, performing arts center, outdoor sculpture park with 13.25 miles of hiking and biking trails, and a world-class recording facility and performance hall that hosts artists from across the globe. But in-person attendance has been largely curtailed for the past two years in deference to COVID-19. On June 10, Tippet Rise is re-opening for a full summer season and a busy slate of events, and arts reporter Anna Paige took the occasion this week to tell the story of the center’s past, present and future.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
On Wednesday and Thursday of next week, June 15-16, the Montana Historical Society is presenting “We the People: The Making of a Constitution” at the state Capitol in Helena. The event features delegates to the 1972 Constitutional Convention, panel discussions on the creation of the state Constitution and its landmark rights, and speakers including longtime political reporter Chuck Johnson, open records attorney Mike Meloy, former U.S. Sen. and Ambassador to China Max Baucus, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike McGrath, Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras, and a who’s who of past and present policymakers and politicos.
MTFP has reported extensively on the Montana Constitution during this, its 50th anniversary year, so you know we’ll be there. If you can’t join us in person, many of the programs will be livestreamed on MPAN.
Attendance is free (except for optional box lunches) but registration is encouraged.
—Brad Tyer, Editor
The Viz 📈
The contest for the Republican nomination for Montana’s newly drawn Western U.S. House seat turned into a nail-biter this week as GOP primary voters split their support nearly evenly between the two leading candidates.
Most political observers had viewed former congressman and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump and spent more than $2 million campaigning in the primary, as the presumptive favorite. Orthopedic surgeon and former state Sen. Al Olszewski however, gave him a run for his money.
Following a counting delay in northwest Montana’s Lincoln County, where a printing error forced election officials to count ballots by hand, Zinke claimed victory in the race Thursday evening. As of Friday morning, he led the as-yet-uncertified vote count by a 1,608-vote margin, with 35,241 votes to Olszewski’s 33,633. (Three other candidates — Mary Todd, Matt Jette and Mitch Heuer — received 15,660 votes between them).
Zinke won most of the western district’s other population centers, picking up nearly 1,800 votes more than Olszewski in Missoula County, nearly 1,300 more in the Bitterroot and 800 more in Gallatin County, around Bozeman.
Olszewski, though, won enough support from GOP voters in the Flathead, where both men built their political careers, to nearly counterbalance those wins. Zinke, who spent four years representing Whitefish in the Montana Legislature before his rise to national office, won 6,814 GOP primary votes in Flathead County. But Olszewski, who represented part of the Flathead in the state Legislature from 2015 to 2020, picked up 10,335 — giving him a whopping 3,521 vote margin there.
—Eric Dietrich, Reporter
Wildlife Watch 🦬
Last December, after a poorly received suite of elk management proposals unleashed what Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Henry “Hank” Worsech described as a “firestorm” of public comment, Worsech pledged to assemble a diverse group of stakeholders to help FWP shape its elk hunting proposals and ease tensions between landowners, public land hunters and outfitters.
FWP received 243 applicants, narrowed the list to 12, and they’ve been meeting twice a month since late March. According to its charter, the group is encouraged to move past old debates and revisit “old issues with fresh eyes.” Those issues include elk populations that exceed FWP objectives in some parts of the state, hunters’ calls for better hunting access, increasing reports of crowded public lands, and disease concerns — likely a reference to chronic wasting disease and brucellosis, both of which have been detected in Montana elk.
Montanans from Kalispell to Miles City are participating in the group, which also includes FWP representation from Special Projects Director Deb O’Neill. A Washington, D.C.-based facilitator experienced with a process called “structured decision-making” has been guiding the group, which is expected to deliver a set of recommendations to Worsech by the end of July.
At its June 7 meeting, which was conducted via Zoom, the group brainstormed some loose proposals, including a measure dubbed “pick your area, pick your weapon” intended to limit crowding by encouraging hunters to pick a district and a season — bow or rifle — and stick with it, rather than pursuing elk in multiple areas across two seasons. Others, like increasing fines for trespassing and launching an education program for the non-agricultural community, are meant to address landowner concerns.
One proposal to allow an unsuccessful hunter to use an unfilled tag issued to someone else — sometimes called “transferrable tags” or “party hunting,” depending on the particulars of the approach — gained little traction with FWP. O’Neill said the transferrable tag concept is a “lightning rod” and not something that would be supported by the agency.
Streamings of previous meetings can be found here. The next meeting is scheduled for June 21.
—Amanda Eggert, Reporter
Talking Points 🗣
On June 6, more than two dozen of the Montanans vested with a constitutional hand in the state’s public education system sat facing each other in a room in the Montana Capitol. There were Republicans and Democrats, lawmakers and state education board members, elected officials and association leaders, each with a distinct opinion on what path K-12 instruction should chart. The talking points were similarly diverse, from the merits of standardized testing to the value of career- and trades-based learning to the importance of honoring Indigenous languages and cultures.
Much of the day unfolded under the facilitation of Jason Dougal, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, who previously appeared before the Legislature’s two education-centric interim committees in March hammering the need for Montana to modernize its education system. He picked that thread back up Monday, questioning the powers that be — among them Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian and Board of Public Education (BPE) Chair Tammy Lacey — about whether they agreed on the need for significant systemic action. The answer was a resounding, unanimous “yes.”
Perhaps the most telling portion of Monday’s discourse came not during the talk about promising new initiatives or recent regulatory proposals, but rather during a discussion, prompted by Dougal, of the characteristics and qualities that education leaders want to see in a Montana K-12 graduate. A graduate should recognize that something other than a four-year post-secondary degree is fine, BPE member Tim Tharp said. They should possess the “soft skills” necessary to adapt to unexpected changes in life, Rep. Connie Keogh, D-Missoula, chimed in. Deputy Superintendent Sharyl Allen said students should have a “sense of purpose.” Rep. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, added that they need to have “base skills” in numeracy, literacy and citizenship.
As the conversation continued, a picture began to take shape of a competent, ethical, engaged high school graduate who understands their personal interests and aptitudes, commands an awareness of other cultures, and is ready to learn and adapt to life’s inevitable twists and turns. The exercise wasn’t about setting official standards, Dougal noted, but was instead aimed at developing a shared profile that can underpin future deliberations on education policy.
If the priorities listed at the close of the proceedings by the day’s chair, Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, are any indication, those deliberations will cover considerable ground in the coming months. Given the breadth of issues officials hope to tackle — early childhood education, enhanced opportunities for teachersand greater alignment of Montana’s curriculum to desired student outcomes, to name a few — Bedey made one added suggestion: that Monday’s meeting, the first of its kind he knew of in 50 years, not be the last.
“Perhaps this is something that should be codified,” he said. “If this is not just going to be a one-off gathering, and if this has value associated with it … perhaps we should make this something that’s formalized so that it does last going into the future.”
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
By the Numbers 🔢
Total number of ballots returned statewide in Montana’s June 7, 2022 primary election, according to figures from the Montana secretary of state’s office. There were 743,666 voters registered to vote Tuesday, making for a voter turnout rate of 39.20%. That includes the final tally from a ballot hand-count in Lincoln Countythat resulted from a physical error on absentee ballots there. For comparison, statewide voter turnout hit 41.61% in the state’s most recent non-presidential primary in 2018, when 282,704 Montanans cast ballots out of a then-total of 679,333 registered voters.
—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter
On Our Radar
Amanda — This piece about youth mental health dives into a difficult subject with a lot of heart. I’m so grateful to these families in Miles City and Billings for sharing their stories with Billings Gazette reporter Emily Schabacker and filmmaker Ken Burns.
Alex — I’ve written quite a bit about how the debate over critical race theory is playing out at the K-12 level in Montana. But as the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out this week, college campuses are facing similar challengesas well. The article notes the number of proposals Republican state lawmakers nationwide have introduced on the issue, and how campus leaders and faculty are responding in states that have embraced such policies.
Eric — Here’s one of the more thought-provoking things I’ve read recently about the state of housing affordability in America, courtesy of the New York Times (which couldn’t resist putting “NIMBY” in their headline). The essential question it raises: Are the politics that have animated the American environmental movement for generations now a barrier as communities across the nation struggle to house their residents?
Mara — Wyoming’s sole representative in Congress, Republican Liz Cheney, is striking a high profile this week as the committee investigating the events of Jan. 6, 2021 presents its findings to the nation. This write-up by the Casper Star-Tribune summarizes Cheney’s grave opening statements on Thursday, in which she outright blamed former President Donald Trump for his role in instigating the assault on the U.S. Capitol and condemned the behavior of some members of her party. “Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.”
Arren — I’m keeping a close eye on the race for the second seat on the Flathead County Commission, where challenger Jack Fallon holds a razor-thin lead over Commissioner Pam Holmquist, as reported by the Flathead Beacon. It’s a bellwether race in one of the state’s GOP strongholds, a county where different stripes of conservative jostle for control. Only Republicans ran for the seat, leaving the candidates to distinguish themselves in other ways. The Flathead County Republican Central Committee, chaired by hardliner Ronalee Skees, attacked Fallon and other candidates in ads leading up to the primary, branding them inadequately conservative. But now Fallon’s up over Holmquist by four votes. Next week, officials will tabulate 300 more provisional ballots. If, per statute, the second-place candidate trails “by a margin not exceeding 1/4 of 1% of the total votes cast or by a margin not exceeding 10 votes,” they can ask for a recount.
*Some articles may be behind a paywall.