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Lawmakers in Helena got yet another taste early this week of the intense skepticism that some of their colleagues feel about the security of Montana’s elections. Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, proposed a minor change to state law aimed at ensuring that the ballot tabulating machines used by 46 counties to tally election results don’t contain modems. But the change didn’t go far enough for others in Bedey’s caucus, who felt that a modem-free certification from the makers of the machines isn’t guarantee enough.

The episode highlighted the differing schools of thought in the Legislature when it comes to revising the state’s election laws: those who believe the system is secure and can be further enhanced by a legal tweak here or there, and those who insist that fair elections are under active threat and only sweeping change can restore integrity. 

The divide was on display again Tuesday and Wednesday as legislators debated another pair of bills, one requiring election offices to conduct their vote counts without interruptions and another barring counties from utilizing private money or property to conduct elections. The former was explained in part as a tool to ensure continuous citizen oversight of the process, but was hotly contested by county officials who argued it could result in election staff having to work as many as 60 straight hours without a break. The latter, largely rooted in criticism of a series of national nonprofit grants in 2020, raised concerns about the potential impacts to tribes that provide physical infrastructure to house satellite voting locations. 

Misinformation about vulnerabilities and wrongdoing in elections — namely the 2020 presidential race — have swept the country in recent years, impacting many voters’ faith in the democratic process. In probing the ramifications of the proposed vote count change Tuesday, Rep. Mike Yakawich, R-Billings, cut to the existential heart of the matter. What he sensed reverberating through testimony was the issue of trust, and “whether trust has been broken or not.” 

For his part, Bedey has directly countered any claims of nefarious election activity, at least in Montana.

“There’s been no evidence of that,” he told lawmakers Monday. “And to the extent that people promulgate these sorts of accusations that can’t be proven, [it] deteriorates public trust in our election system, and I think it’s irresponsible.”

—Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

By the Numbers 🔢

Approximate number of Montanans covered by private market health insurance through Mountain Health Co-op, one of just three survivors among the 23 state-based health insurance co-ops launched in 2012 under the auspices of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

Verbatim 💬

“There should never be — ever be — obscene material or pornographic instruction in any of our Montana public schools.”

State Superintendent Elsie Arntzen, testifying Thursday in favor of a bill that would subject teachers and librarians to criminal penalties for displaying or distributing to minors any material that meets the state’s definition of “obscene.” State law currently exempts school, library and museum employees from such penalties provided the material complies with locally adopted policies. Proponents said the change would protect children from seeing or reading anything inappropriate for their age. Opponents argued the bill amounts to government censorship, increases liability for staff at impacted institutions and threatens public access to art, historical content and a score of book titles including, potentially, the Bible.

Alex Sakariassen, Reporter

The Junque Drawer 🗄️

On Monday, lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on House Bill 204, sponsored by Rep. Bob Phalen, R-Lindsay, which dusts off an intentionally closed chapter of Montana law: penalties for adultery.

“When the loss of affection or consortium of a spouse is caused by the wrongful act of another, the injured spouse may maintain an action for damages against the person causing the loss of affection or consortium,” the bill reads. The bill would apply retroactively to claims filed within three years prior to the bill’s passage.

Phalen’s bill drew testimony from one proponent, who identified himself as “a victim and survivor of adultery,” and one opponent, the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, whose representative blasted the bill as “outdated by several decades.” 

When a particularly perplexing bill materializes in front of the Legislature, there are a few tools available to help investigate its backstory. Chief among those is the almighty Junque File (spelling intentional) — all correspondence and materials exchanged between lawmakers, constituents and legislative staff during the bill drafting process. 

The Junque File on HB 204, requested by Montana Free Press, makes a few things clear. In emails, Phalen described the bill’s sole proponent as “a constituent and a friend of mine” who went through a financially damaging divorce. Phalen took up the man’s cause but suggested to the bill drafter that the resulting bill draft didn’t go far enough in the pursuit of justice.

“An unfaithful person should not get half [of the financial assets] in my humble opinion,” Phalen wrote. “Or anything, it should be law that it’s a felony if you are unfaithful. There must be consequences for an unfaithful spouse, just sayin!”

In another email, Phalen discussed another bill draft related to adultery, now titled House Bill 237, which requires a court to consider if “physical abuse or adultery substantially contributed to the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.” Phalen told the bill drafter that he and his friend were on the fence about allowing a judge to be the sole arbiter of that decision, suggesting that (presumably male) judges would be biased in favor of attractive women.

“I have a tendency to wonder myself because if you are an attractive gal then you might have a better chance of swaying a judge,” Phalen wrote. “Men are men no matter what they wear.”

Lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee ultimately voted down HB 204 on Friday in a 12-7 vote and subsequently agreed to table Phalen’s proposal without objection. 

The same committee heard Friday morning testimony on HB 237, which received more discussion and questions from the committee than Phalen’s first proposal. Lawmakers did not take any vote on that bill.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

Viewshed 🌄

Credit: Arren Kimbel-Sannit/MTFP

About 300 people gathered at the Capitol on Jan. 20 to demonstrate support for climate action and renewable energy in an event that Families for a Livable Climate described as the first full-day event devoted entirely to climate advocacy at the Capitol.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit, Reporter

Wildlife Watch 🐻

Three environmental groups sued the U.S. government over grizzly management this week, arguing that it has failed to analyze how killing and removing grizzlies is adversely affecting the bruins’ long-term recovery.

In addition to asking the government to conduct new environmental and biological analyses, the groups are asking the U.S. District Court in Missoula to temporarily halt any grizzly killing by Wildlife Services, a federal agency situated within the U.S. Department of Agriculture that uses a variety of lethal and non-lethal methods to remove and kill animals deemed a “threat to human health and safety.” According to plaintiffs WildEarth Guardians, Trap Free Montana and Western Watersheds Project, Wildlife Services killed more than 400,000 native animals nationwide in 2021 and unintentionally killed another 2,700.

Among other claims, the plaintiffs argue that the recent removal of two grizzlies in the Bitterroot Valley runs counter to an objective that was established when the bears were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1975: the establishment of a Selway-Bitterroot recovery zone.

Last October, Wildlife Services authorized the relocation of a male and female grizzly that had been living in the Stevensville area “for months,” according to the complaint. Rather than relocating the sibling bears elsewhere in the Bitterroot, they were moved outside the Bitterroot recovery zone to the opposite side of the valley.

Western Environmental Law Center attorney Matthew Bishop said in a release about the lawsuit that such actions threaten the habitat connectivity and genetic interchange that the animals need to achieve long-term recovery.

—Amanda Eggert, Reporter

On Our Radar 

Amanda —Five-ish years ago a Missoula friend hypothesized that the Bozeman airport’s concerted effort to build up its direct flight roster has played a major role in Gallatin County’s explosive growth. That theory came to mind yesterday when I read this Bozeman Daily Chronicle story about (yet another) record-breaking year for Montana’s busiest airport.

Alex — Montana’s university system officially banned the use of TikTok on campus networks this month, but don’t think for a second we’re the only ones. As the Guardian wrote recently, campuses have become “the new frontier” in a war on the video-based app, and the trend is already being called out by some advocates as both a political stunt and a form of censorship.

Mara — It seems like half my friends (mostly in their 30s, many couples) are doing “dry January,” a month of no alcohol consumption. The New Year trend seems more popular than ever before. For a bit more reflection on the topic, check out this piece in the New York Times about the upsides of trying to break a not-so-healthy habit.  

Eric — I saw some new-to-me footage from the Montana Historical Society’s archives this week of a Butte copper miner at work a century ago. Reminds me I should stop complaining about our windowless office in the Capitol basement.

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