Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen announced her 2024 bid for re-election last week, setting the stage for a campaign battle between the incumbent Republican and newspaper publisher turned Democratic challenger Jesse Mullen.

In a launch video released Friday, Jacobsen is portrayed as a champion of election integrity and business-friendly practices who has “cut the size of government” during her tenure in office.

“In the past term, we’ve achieved significant milestones, from securing our election systems to supporting small businesses,” Jacobsen said in an email release announcing her candidacy. “I am committed to building on this foundation, working tirelessly to uphold the conservative values that make Montana great.”

Montana Secretary od State Christi Jacobsen
Christi Jacobsen Credit: Ballotpedia

The secretary of state’s office oversees Montana’s election system, as well as the official records of the state’s executive branch and a range of services for in-state businesses, corporations and nonprofits. Prior to heading the agency, Jacobsen served as deputy secretary of state under her Republican predecessor, Corey Stapleton. Jacobsen’s bid to retain the office quickly drew the support of the Montana Republican Party’s executive board, with chairman Don Kaltschmidt releasing a statement Friday praising her work during her first term.

“Since taking office, Secretary Jacobsen has led the charge when it comes to supporting Montana’s small businesses and upholding the integrity of our elections,” Kaltschmidt wrote.

Mullen spoke to the secretary of state’s electoral and business duties in his Sept. 12 campaign announcement as well, writing that the recent growth of his company — the Mullen Newspaper Company, which now owns 21 papers across the Rocky Mountain West including the Silver State Post, Bitterroot Star and Philipsburg Mail — has “helped me understand the needs and concerns of our citizens and businesses.” Mullen alluded to the secretary’s status as a member of the Montana Land Board in calling for the protection of natural resources, and characterized his campaign’s focus as “building bridges between our rural and urban communities, and recognizing that Montana’s diversity is our strength.”

After taking office in January 2021, Jacobsen was instrumental in advocating and defending a series of Republican-led changes to Montana election law, including the elimination of same-day voter registration and stricter requirements for voter identification at the polls. Jacobsen defended the 2021 laws as critical in safeguarding the security of Montana’s elections, but her office lost a legal challenge in Yellowstone County District Court last year that saw the laws struck down as unconstitutional. An appeal by Jacobsen is pending before the Montana Supreme Court.

Her office is currently defending in federal court a law passed this spring that adds new requirements to the voter registration process that prevent voters from casting ballots in two locations during the same election and applies new criminal penalties to violators. And on the business front, allegations that Jacobsen’s office wrongfully retained more than $100,000 in duplicate filing fees charged to businesses in 2020 triggered a lengthy class action lawsuit. That lawsuit was settled in April via a joint agreement requiring that the secretary of state’s office implement procedures to detect and refund any overcharges without businesses having to request the refunds.

In announcing his own campaign for secretary of state this fall, Mullen — a Democrat, Deer Lodge resident and founder of the Mullen Newspaper Company — criticized “our current election executive” as paying “nothing more than lip service and empty promises” to the issue of fair and open elections. His announcement did not name Jacobsen directly, and  positioned Mullen as a candidate dedicated to ballot access and, by virtue of his career in the newspaper industry, a “commitment to transparency and accountability.”

Mullen’s critiques of Jacobsen have become more pointed in subsequent statements and social media interactions. During a recent Reddit AMA, Mullen accused Jacobsen of “total incompetence” in the rollout of Montana’s new election software this year, and of continuing to push voter messaging about the new 2021 election laws even after they were struck down in court.

“It’s too important of a position to learn on the job,” Mullen said in an interview with the Glendive Ranger-Review last week. In a social media post excerpting that quote, Mullen added that after almost three years in office, Jacobsen “still can’t handle the basics.”

Jacobsen has also been criticized by conservatives who continue to view the 2020 presidential election, and election security more generally, with skepticism or outright denial. At a public meeting in Hamilton hosted by the self-styled Montana Election Integrity Project this June, a sign on the stage claimed that “Montana’s entire election infrastructure has been corrupted” — a belief several speakers asserted includes the secretary of state’s office. To date, Jacobsen has declined to engage directly with election skeptics, instead promoting a message that the state’s election system “already sets the standard across the country.”

Disclosure: While working as a freelance journalist in 2019, Alex Sakariassen contracted with the Silver State Post, which is owned by Jesse Mullen, to produce a magazine article, for which he was paid $140.


Montana Supreme Court revokes Rosebud coal mine expansion

The Montana Supreme Court has halted an expansion of a Westmoreland-operated mine that supplies the Colstrip power plant with coal. The court’s decision vacated an 8-year-old permit that allowed Westmoreland to pull 12 million tons of coal from the Rosebud Mine located in southeastern Montana.

Missoula again looks for answers to Brooks Street malfunction 

Walking across Brooks Street can be “daunting,” and a lack of bicycle lanes forces riders into traffic or onto sidewalks, safety concerns the city of Missoula is looking to improve in a new study, along with expanding transit options and alleviating traffic problems. The Transform Brooks – Connect Midtown project is part of an effort…

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...