By CANDACE ROJO
Community News Service
UM School of Journalism
Call it the rematch, the “do-over” of 2012.
Four years have passed since Montana voters spoiled former Secretary of State Brad Johnson’s hopes for a second term. The 2008 race was close; Democrat Linda McCulloch won a three-way contest by about 5,000 votes.
On Nov. 6, McCulloch and Johnson will face off again. This time Johnson hopes to play the spoiler and finish the work he began in his first term.
Both candidates are veteran campaigners. Before becoming secretary of state, McCulloch served three terms in the state House of Representatives, followed by two terms as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction.
Johnson has run unsuccessfully for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and the state’s Public Service Commission. He withdrew from the 2010 PSC race after pleading guilty to DUI.
For both, the election is about how they would handle the office’s most visible duties: enforcing state election laws and managing nearly 5 million acres of state-owned lands.
As chief elections officer, the secretary of state is charged with seeing that elections are fairly and legally run. That’s often controversial. Nationally, Republicans have pushed to secure voter lists against fraud. Some Democrats suspect the effort is designed to disenfranchise poor and elderly voters likely to vote for them.
Although he acknowledges that voter fraud in Montana is low to nonexistent, Johnson said he wants to keep it that way by requiring that all voters present photo IDs at the polls. Incidents of fraudulent ballots elsewhere show that Montana should be cautious, he added.
“I’m not proposing those because we have a crisis to solve,” Johnson said. “I’m proposing those because I want to prevent the crisis from developing. The way I describe it, my home has never been robbed but I lock the front door when I leave, I think that’s just common sense.”
But McCulloch favors Montana’s current rules, which allow voters to present all sorts of identification, including utility bills with a current address. Providing government-distributed ID cards would be costly and might discourage some citizens from voting, she added.
“It’s an additional expense that we can’t afford right now,” she said. “I think it will be a lot of paper, a lot of red tape that we don’t need. It will be a huge burden for people who don’t have ID, especially senior citizens and low-income people.”
Absentee voting is another hot topic. In this summer’s primary, 61 percent of voters cast absentee ballots.
McCulloch hopes Montana will eventually vote entirely by mail because it’s cheaper and encourages more people to vote.
But she failed to get an all-absentee voting bill through the last years’ GOP-controlled Legislature.
Johnson said things work well the way they are. Citizens can go to the polls if they want, or they can vote in the comfort of their homes. He said Montanans should have a choice.
The candidates also differ over whether Montana should continue to allow voters to register on Election Day. Republican lawmakers say the practice has led to long lines and late voting, but Gov. Brian Schweitzer vetoed their bill last session that would have ended the practice.
McCullough supports same-day registration, saying that it hasn’t caused many problems. She said that only 1,000 voters registered on this summer’s primary election day. Just 21,000 registered on the last three general election days combined, she added.
“When people move into the state or when they move across the state or they move across town, the first thing they think about is finding a place to live, getting settled in and getting their kids in school, and so they don’t remember to register to vote,” she said. “So it’s a convenience for any voter to be able to register and vote on Election Day.”
As secretary of state, Johnson supported same-day registration when it was enacted in 2005. He said he still supports late registration but not on Election Day because it creates “unnecessary turmoil” in county election offices.
Managing state lands
As one of five elected officials on the State Lands Board, the secretary of state votes on how the state will use 5.2 million acres of state-owned land. Leasing surface and mineral rights on those lands provides revenue for public schools.
Johnson said he is in favor of “aggressive and responsive development” of natural resources.
“I think we can do that responsibly and I think we have an obligation to the people of this state to develop our resources,” he said. “We need members of the board that are committed to that ongoing and responsible development of our resources. Coal, oil, and gas, timber ? those things are all critically important to the economic future of Montana.”
Last year, the board voted 3-2 to lease millions of tons of coal on state-owned land along Otter Creek in southeast Montana. McCulloch voted for the lease, though two other Democrat state officials opposed it.
Even so, Johnson said he was disappointed McCulloch was quoted by the Associated Press saying she could not commit to future development at Otter Creek without review.
However, McCulloch said she has voted to generate more than $800 million in revenue from state lands in her 12 years on the board. She said she is committed to raising money for Montana schools through the land board.
While the candidates disagree on many points, both want to see higher voter turnout and encouraged citizens to get involved and become educated voters.
“We have a better voter turnout than other states do,” McCulloch said. “But I’m not content until we have 100 percent turnout.”