For immediate release Secretary of State EDITOR’S NOTE: These stories are produced by University of Montana journalism students

under the supervision of Professor Dennis Swibold. They may be used without charge, provided editors retain the students’ bylines. Please contact Professor Swibold (dennis.swibold@umontana.edu) with any questions. You can also find this story and others on the upcoming election at www.montanaschoice2008.blogspot.com.)

Secretary of State Rivals Spar over Election Rules
By ERICA DOORNEK Community News Service UM School of Journalism Whether it’s striving to comply with election law, helping voters register, or streamlining business licensing, the secretary of state’s job is to set the record straight and ensure Montanans’ confidence in the process. But after a shaky 2006 election raised concerns about vote security and late registration policies, the question is, just how far has election reform come and where should it go? On Nov. 4, voters will answer that by choosing between Republican incumbent Brad Johnson and Democratic challenger Linda McCulloch Johnson, a former businessman and congressional aide, is seeking a second four-year term. McCulloch is Montana’s outgoing superintendent of public instruction and a former legislator. Both know Helena and Montana politics. Both understand the job’s most public task: election reform. The federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 established guidelines for making voting easier, including late registration and use of electronic voting machines. But after the 2006 election, a legislative audit found 14 instances where the secretary of state’s office failed to comply with HAVA regulations. The audit cited a “lack of planning” in distributing voter information, in dealing with same-day registration, in training election workers and in updating the state’s voter database. Johnson said he worked hard to comply with the new and complex federal law. “We didn’t miss any major deadlines,” he said. “The registration database was up and running, but the same-day registration was a huge amount of work for election officials. … Help America Vote was a classic piece of federal government one-size-fitsall legislation that can be hard for a state like Montana to implement.” McCulloch contends that Johnson gave no direction on how to train and prepare employees for the new regulations under HAVA. “We really have to make sure it runs smoothly at the state level before it can work in the counties,” she said. “We’re on our way there, but the 2006 election really set us back.” Johnson said he is confident his office is ready for Nov. 4. He believes Montana is now 100 percent HAVA-compliant. “I’ve visited the top election officials in all 56 counties, and I couldn’t be more confident in their abilities,” he said.

Even so, Johnson remains critical of Montana’s same-day voter registration law, which allows qualified voters to register and vote on Election Day. Late registrants kept the polls open in Montana’s major cities for too long in 2006 and delayed election results, he said. “I propose that we shorten the 30-day late registration period by a day and a half, so we can give county officials time to get their poll books updated,” he said. “If you didn’t register to vote on time, that’s just tough.” Johnson couldn’t persuade the 2007 Legislature to make that change, but he hasn’t given up. McCulloch, by contrast, said the problem in 2006 wasn’t with the same-day law, but with the preparation. The large number of voters who registered on Election Day in 2006 proves that Montanans like the idea, she added. “The train really left the station on that one,” she said. “Now the secretary of state needs to take a leadership role with registration instead of fighting against it.” Both candidates agree that Montana has made absentee voting easier. Johnson predicts Montana may eventually go to an all-absentee system like Oregon’s. Encouraging more young people to vote is another priority for both candidates. “We’ll need to go out into high schools, universities, and tribal communities in a bipartisan way to generate excitement about voting,” McCulloch said. She said she would also propose legislation that would allow high school students to serve as election judges. “What better way to get young people in every corner of the state involved at the ground level?” she asked. Johnson said it’s crucial to break down the “disconnect and cynicism” many young people have about government. Beyond running elections, Montana’s secretary of state is charged with licensing and keeping records of every business in the state. Johnson said that in 2004, he set out to be the “technology secretary,” vowing to bring the office’s 1970s-era computer system up to date and to streamline business services. “We’ve made tremendous strides,” he said. “Licensing a business in the old days took almost a month. Now it’s down to two days.” McCulloch said she can handle the challenge, offering her eight years as Superintendent of Public Instruction as evidence. For example, she said, she built an online teacher licensing system from the ground up. “I’ve talked to business owners who say that in the past few years, it’s still been tough to get their businesses licensed,” McCulloch added. “It should not be hard to provide this resource so that businesses can generate income.” Another of the secretary’s responsibilities is membership on the State Land Board, which oversees the management of more than 5 million acres of state lands, the proceeds of which help fund K-12 public schools. As state school superintendent, McCulloch served on the board for eight years. “This is an important way to generate non-tax funding for schools,” she said. “That’s why it’s so disturbing that Brad Johnson has missed more meetings than any other member.” In his four-year tenure, Johnson has failed to show up for or call in to at least five Land Board meetings. Johnson declined to comment on the absences specifically, but

stated, “We need to, when it is environmentally and economically appropriate, develop state lands responsibly.” When asked to sum up his accomplishments, Johnson said, “I am proud of becoming a leader for technology in state government, as well as completely integrating HAVA into the state’s election process.” He also cited his pride in the integrity of the state’s elections, especially in the wake of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s remarks last summer to a conference of trial lawyers. At the conference, the governor said that in 2006 he helped scare GOP poll watchers away from Montana's Crow reservation, pressed a Butte-Silver Bow County election official for faster returns, and pressured the Associated Press to project a winner in a U.S. Senate race. Schweitzer has since apologized, saying his comments were poor jokes. If they were, Johnson isn’t laughing. “Hopefully every elected official learned it’s critical that we carefully weigh our words,” Johnson said. “In jest or not, it damages electoral confidence.” McCulloch promises to put her education background to use in beefing up election training, making sure there is a paper trail for every vote cast, and eliminating the possibilities of registration and signature fraud. Overtaking an incumbent isn’t easy, but she said she’s up to the job. “I will be a full-time secretary of state; not just when it’s convenient,” she said. “This office needs to be a watchdog for any problems early on, not just after the election.” -30-

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