Credit: Adobe stock/license required

When Amy Reeves got word last month that political flyers with her name and photo were showing up in Helena mailboxes, she didn’t know what to make of it. Despite a few factual errors, they were supportive of her 2022 bid for clerk and recorder in Lewis and Clark County, a position she’s held since her appointment in 2020. But she’d never solicited such help, and had never heard of the organization responsible.

“I just couldn’t figure out why anybody from Washington, D.C., would care about my little race here in Lewis and Clark County,” Reeves said, noting that she went so far as to inquire with the state commissioner of political practices. “In my eyes, my position is not a political position.”

The mailers, paid for by a national political action committee called Open Democracy, weren’t the first surprise Reeves experienced since filing to retain the office. Given that her predecessor went unopposed throughout her 27-year tenure, Reeves said she didn’t anticipate she’d even have a challenger until Bettijo Starr — a Helena native who has since called for greater integrity in local elections — entered the race in March. Starr’s messaging on election issues and Open Democracy’s unsolicited support have led Reeves to believe that it isn’t her office’s property tax or motor vehicle duties driving interest in the county clerk post this year.

“I would say the majority of the attention is because of the election portion of the job,” Reeves said. One of Reeves’ functions as clerk and recorder is to oversee the preparation for and administration of elections, a role typical of county clerk and recorders throughout Montana. Some counties, including Lewis and Clark, have kept the post nonpartisan, while others such as Gallatin County run partisan elections for clerk and recorder.

Similar stories are playing out throughout the country as an increasingly divisive debate about the security and integrity of American elections spills across the campaign landscape. A report by the Brennan Center for Justice noted that as of August, fundraising for secretary of state candidates across six states had hit $16.3 million, more than double the total in 2018. Outside spending had risen too, with PACs and dark money groups funneling $8.8 million into those races. Even formerly overlooked county offices with a hand in the electoral process have become intense battlegrounds, attracting the sort of politically charged messaging and outside spending normally associated with higher-profile contests.

An email to the Open Democracy PAC requesting comment about its spending in Montana went unanswered. But the group’s activity, here and nationally, is a prime example of the elevated attention county election posts are garnering this year. According to Federal Election Commission records, the group has raised nearly $5.4 million since January 2021 — $2.3 million of which came from the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a nonprofit that magazine The Atlantic dubbed the “indisputable heavyweight of Democratic dark money.” Politico likened the scope and volume of the fund’s $141 million in political spending in 2018 to that of the sprawling dark money network built by the Koch brothers and other conservatives over recent decades.

Open Democracy’s website says its mission is to “support and elect state lawmakers and election administrators” who promise to promote automatic voter registration, make voting more accessible and “eliminate rules disenfranchising voters because of race.” Its mission statement also characterizes 2021 as a tipping point in the national debate over ballot access, claiming that in the wake of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots, “extremists have used voter suppression as a rallying cry.”

“That’s a lifetime’s work. And then someone, on their own, sends this stuff out and suddenly a section of the population no longer trusts me.”

Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder Eric Semerad

The PAC has focused that mission — and, as of Oct. 19, $4.5 million in expenditures — on some of this year’s highest-profile American political races. The list of statewide candidates Open Democracy is supporting includes Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, whose Trump-backed Republican challenger Tudor Dixon has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election; former Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the 2022 Democratic candidate for governor opposite conservative firebrand and Trump ally Doug Mastriano; and Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, who is currently in a pitched gubernatorial campaign against prominent election skeptic Kari Lake.

What makes Open Democracy’s activity in 2022 particularly eye-catching is that the PAC’s list of endorsees extends to more than two dozen county-level candidates — auditors, judges, commissioners and clerks — in six states. Reeves is among them, as is incumbent Gallatin County Clerk and Recorder Eric Semerad. According to Facebook’s Ad Library, a recent Open Democracy video ad on Facebook and Instagram encouraged voters to support Semerad on Nov. 8 with the message, “We need election administrators who will put professionalism over politics.” Except for the candidate-specific information, the ad was identical to one Open Democracy distributed on social media supporting Reeves.

The ads have triggered a negative response in both races. A YouTube channel active in recent Helena elections has produced nine videos critical of Open Democracy’s support for Reeves, each closing with the tagline “Elections matter. Who is in charge of them is just as important.” In Bozeman, Semerad’s opponent, Republican Marla Davis, has posted a series of Facebook ads asking why a “dark money PAC from DC” is messaging on Semerad’s behalf.

“One must ask, what are their motives and why specifically the clerk and recorder’s race,” Davis told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle last week. “Their website provides a glimpse as to their targets and goals.”

Semerad wonders that himself. He’s done very little campaigning on his own part, he said, and has only peeled away from his office’s fall election preparations for a single day of door-knocking. He added that he’s spent his three decades as a civil servant in Gallatin County working to earn the community’s trust — an effort he said the PAC’s support has, ironically, undermined.

“That’s a lifetime’s work,” Semerad said. “And then someone, on their own, sends this stuff out and suddenly a section of the population no longer trusts me.”

Reeves too is incensed, particularly over a pair of negative mailers Open Democracy circulated attacking Starr. They were “absolutely horrible,” Reeves said, something she “wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.” Starr told MTFP that she ignored the first such mailer, but found the second one, which claimed her views on elections, guns and abortion were too extreme, to be “slanderous.”

“It’s really sad that people would believe that kind of thing,” Starr said. “I think it’s very curious that a Democratic PAC out of Washington, D.C., is so concerned about a nonpartisan race in Helena, Montana. To me, that is a very curious thing.”

Starr said election issues are only part of why she entered the race. She also cited a desire to address wait times at the county’s motor vehicle division and to improve the office’s service in outlying communities such as Lincoln and Augusta — including, she said, installing part-time local workers in those locations. But elections are among her top concerns. According to records previously obtained by MTFP, Starr is among the 126 Lewis and Clark County residents who filed identical open records requests with Reeves’ office in August seeking documents known as “cast vote records.” 

Starr said transparency in elections is a big part of what’s driving her interest in becoming clerk and recorder. 

“What the Lord said to me is you can sit around and complain, or you can stand up and do something,” she said, recalling her decision to run. “So I stood up and I’m doing something. And I think that a lot of Americans are feeling that way, that they want to know what’s going on [in the election process], they want to know what’s running this and how it’s being run, and is it the way it’s supposed to be.”

Related

Though Open Democracy has had no presence in Cascade County’s 2022 elections, incumbent clerk and recorder Rina Moore said the 2022 cycle is nonetheless an outlier in her 16 years on the job. Until this year, Moore hadn’t faced an electoral opponent since her first primary and general election contests in 2006. Now she’s spent roughly $26,000 on her re-election bid against Republican challenger Sandra Merchant, running Facebook and TikTok campaign accounts and newspaper advertisements. Merchant did not respond to emailed requests for comment.

Moore credits her need to run a robust re-election campaign to the rise of a vocal group in Cascade County critical of her personally and skeptical of the security of the electoral process. Given the charged atmosphere around elections and the criticism she’s fielded locally, Moore said she’s been reluctant to put herself out there physically as a candidate. 

“So far I’ve only gone door to door in Belt, and I was very uncomfortable doing that,” she said. “My son went out there with me and one of the guys that I work with went out there with me, and actually it wasn’t a bad experience.”

Reports of threats and intimidation against election officials nationwide have increased dramatically this year. In Arizona’s Maricopa County alone, the election office fielded 140 such messages between July and August. The U.S. Department of Justice, which is running an election threats task force, briefed hundreds of election officials last month on financial resources for beefing up physical security. Even so, the fear of violence and disruption persists nationally as the hours tick down to Nov. 8.

Latest Stories

Forest Service turns back Holland Lake proposal, for now

In a letter to the developer, POWDR of Park City, Utah, the Forest Service stated that there were inaccuracies with its Master Development Plan. The letter has not been released to the public, but among the issues that had been pointed out by a grassroots group organized against the development, Save Holland Lake, was the…

The resignation that wasn’t

On Aug. 12, 21-year-old Billings Republican Rep. Mallerie Stromswold signed a letter withdrawing from her legislative race and forwarded it to the Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee, which, after a delay, mailed it to the Montana Secretary of State. Today she’s preparing to serve her newly elected term. What happened?

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...