The 2017 Montana Legislature is not scheduled to adjourn for three more weeks, but I think we can already identify the most craven act of the session.
That would be the House’s rejection of a bill to allow all-mail balloting in the special congressional election scheduled for May 25.
Senate Bill 305 was short and simple. It would merely have given county clerks and recorders the authority to conduct an all-mail election to fill the U.S. House seat vacated by Ryan Zinke when he became President Trump’s Interior secretary.
Bill sponsor Steve Fitzpatrick, a Republican from Great Falls, told his Senate colleagues, “This bill is the fiscally responsible thing to do at this time. It’s the fiscally conservative thing to do.”
He was referring to estimates from county elections administrators, who said that being forced to conduct regular walk-in voting could cost as much as $750,000 statewide.
That’s a lot of money for a ballot containing exactly one item, and the costs of a traditional election would have to be picked up by the counties. There was also a reasonable concern that having a special election on an unusual day—May 25 is a Thursday—would dampen voter turnout.
The Montana Senate understood what was at stake and approved Fitzpatrick’s bill on a 35-15 vote.
Then the bill went to the House, and it turned out that dampening voter turnout was precisely what Republicans in that chamber were aiming to do.
Why? Because Rep. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings, the state GOP chairman, had sent out an “Emergency Chairman’s Report” warning of the dire consequences of allowing citizens to vote by mail.
“All mail ballots give the Democrats an inherent advantage in close elections due to their ability to organize large numbers of unpaid college students and members of public employee unions to gather ballots by going door to door,” Essmann said in the letter.
Democrats have gotten so good at exploiting the use of mail-in ballots, Essmann went on, that if Montana were to adopt all-mail voting, it would threaten “the long-term viability of our Republican Party.”
Fitzpatrick, to his credit, dismissed Essmann’s paranoid “reasoning” by saying, “I think what you’ve got is, we’ve got some consultants in the party and they start to develop these myths about returns and results that don’t square with reality.”
He also said, sounding like a statesman rather than a party hack, “The more people that vote, the better, and especially in a congressional race.”
Essmann, it should be noted, wasn’t just worried about the Democrats’ supposed organizing skills. He went even further and claimed that in past elections, some people who may not have been planning to vote were pressured into doing so by Democratic henchmen standing on their doorsteps.
Gazette reporter Tom Lutey added this to Essmann’s claim: “Republicans have for years accused Democrats of only turning in ballots after confirming by interview that voters chose Democratic candidates, which is something Democrats deny.”
I would respond to this unsubstantiated nonsense myself, but let’s hear from Rep. Geraldine Custer, a Republican from Forsyth, who administered elections in Rosebud County for 36 years. Here’s how she opened a guest opinion piece she wrote for the Gazette:
“The fear mongering about the integrity of Montana’s elections needs to stop. There have been no confirmed cases of voter fraud in Big Sky Country.”
As if Essmann’s fear-mongering weren’t bad enough, Republican Secretary of State Corey Stapleton spoke at a Senate Republican caucus meeting, warning that three states that have gone to all-mail ballots—Oregon, Washington and Colorado—have all voted to loosen marijuana laws.
“Is that what you want?” Stapleton asked. “Because that’s what you’re going to get.”
Ah, yes, groundless paranoia meets reefer madness. And then the Republican-controlled House, which pretends to be so worried about fiscal responsibility, voted to foist hundreds of thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenses onto county taxpayers, based on shaky anecdotes.
Worse yet, House Republicans killed the bill by having it assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which does not normally deal with elections bills, and where it was allowed to die a death by tabling. Custer led an unsuccessful move to blast it out of committee.
Custer—remember, she ran elections for 36 years, making her probably the best informed House member in regard to this particular bill—accused her colleagues of breaking the law by assigning the bill to the wrong committee, and then conducting a hearing that she called a “sham.”
There was one more twist last week, when Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, instead of signing another elections bill, one designed only to clean up some language in state law, issued an amendatory veto, altering that bill to do what SB 305 would have done.
It was probably a hopeless move, since both the House and the Senate would have to approve the changes, but the Republicans who accused Bullock of abusing the powers of his office by basically writing his own bill ought to be ashamed.
Still, you have to wonder. Are the House Republicans who voted down a Republican-sponsored bill—which was endorsed by all but two of the state’s counties and ardently defended by an expert like Rep. Custer—still capable of feeling shame?
Ed Kemmick has been a newspaper reporter, editor and columnist since 1980. Except for four years in his home state of Minnesota, he has spent his entire journalism career in Montana, working in Missoula, Anaconda, Butte and Billings. “The Big Sky, By and By,” a collection of some of his newspaper stories and columns, plus a few essays and one short story, was published in 2011.