Monday, June 30, 2008

Sec. State Brad Johnson -- Montana Headlines interview, Part 1 of 2

Note to readers: please see our introductory comments on method and ground-rules that we published with our interview with Republican State Auditor candidate Duane Grimes.


MH: Secretary Johnson, first of all welcome to Montana Headlines, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview.

To start off, Montanans read in the newspapers last month that you just finished visiting the election offices in all 56 Montana counties in your capacity at the chief election administrator of the state. That was quite an undertaking.

Share with us, if you will, some of your impressions about the state of elections in Montana. What are we doing well, and what are some of the challenges that we face in what promises to be one of the biggest primary and general elections that Montana has seen in quite some years?

Brad Johnson: Montana's elections are some of the cleanest and fairest in the country. When I meet with other Secretaries of State from around the nation, they're always envious of how smoothly elections proceed here. One of the first reasons for that is our paper ballot requirement. While other states around the country are dealing with all the security risks of electronic voting machines, every single vote in Montana is on paper where we can count it by hand if we need to. That was bipartisan legislation for which I was proud to be the first proponent.

Another reason Montana's elections work so well is our system of local control. County election officials make their own decisions about whether to count ballots by hand or using a machine. County Commissioners make their own decisions about ordering a hand recount if they believe there's a problem with the total. We have some of the best election administrators anywhere in the country, and I'm proud to call each and every one of them a colleague.

That was one of the best things accomplished by the tour. I had the chance for real face-to-face interaction with the people on the front lines of our electoral process. County election officials had the chance to tell me directly what they wanted form the state. When they asked for more training on the statewide voter registration database, they got it. When they asked for more communication, they got it.

There are still areas we can fine tune. In the last legislative session, my office worked with Rep. Brady Wiseman on legislation to require random audits of some counties vote counts after an election. That didn't pass, but we hope to return to that issue in the next session. Overall, we've got a great election system here -- one that other states look to as an example.

MH: How did the June primary go from your perspective, given the record turnouts, especially on the Democratic side?

Brad Johnson: There are a number of important points to observe about our primary election. The first is that, for the first time ever, Montana endured the rigors of full fledged modern Presidential campaign. The result? Short, well-managed lines, no challenges to the counts, and timely reporting of the results. In brief, this election proceeded nearly perfectly in process. I think a large share of the credit for that goes to the outstanding local election administrators, who trained hard, worked hard, and delivered results for the people of Montana.

Another important point that I’m happy about is that this year, for the first time ever, the Montana Secretary of State’s office delivered accurate, up-to-the minute results on election night. In years past, our “final unofficial count” has been available at some point the day after. But the simple fact of the matter is that the people demanded better. We delivered it, and I was pleased by that.

Voter turnout was great – just a percentage point or two shy of our office projection. And, I might add, the highest since Congress made changes in how we measure voter turnout.

I think every Republican has to look at the turnout figures on the Democrat side and say some version of, “It’s time to get to work. That’s a large number of people voting in the Democrat primary. Obviously the high visibility of the Obama vs. Clinton contest was driving that, combined with the McCain nomination being long-since settled, but even so, we have to look at those numbers and respond with more work and more ideas. We can take nothing for granted.

MH: Was there anything in the results in Bob Kelleher's win in the Republican Senate race or John Driscoll's race in the Democratic House race that raises any red flags for your office, given how unexpected these results were?

Brad Johnson: We certainly did have questions from some folks shortly after the primary. There were a few who wanted to blame the Kelleher situation on some problem with vote counting machines. But Montana has a number of counties that count their ballots by hand. The simple fact of the matter is that the results of the Senate primary in hand-count counties essentially mirrored those in the machine count counties. Kelleher won. Driscoll won. Figuring out why will be a great opportunity for professors and analysts. But they did win, and it was not a problem with the count.

I will take a moment here to say I believe that’s a trend which is highly destructive to democracy. On both sides – Republican and Democrat – when the results are not what we wanted, we blame the system rather than admit we could have lost. Democrats did it in 2004 in Ohio, a few Republicans have been doing it now in Montana… but what happens if those efforts succeed? What happens if the public comes to believe that the only legitimate election is one where your candidate wins? People will lose faith in the system of self government. That’s something I think we all want to prevent.

MH: You took some flack from the left during the last legislative session when you advocated for election workers and their reasonable proposal to close registration a mere two business days before the election. Did we see the kinds of backed up lines and overloaded staff on election day that we did in the fall of 2006? Will you be advocating for such legislation again, or do you think that we are just stuck with voter registration loading down our election offices on election day itself?

Brad Johnson: In the political world, we have a big debate going on about “everyone should be able to participate in an election, even if they forget to register up until the last minute” vs. “Voting is a responsibility, if you can’t be bothered to pay attention you should not take part.” I believe in voting as a responsibility, and I work every day toward increasing people’s informed, prepared participation. I also believe in increasing participation. That’s why I think HB281 in the 2007 session was such a good compromise. It still opened up the process much more – from 30 days before the election down to three. But it asked for just a little bit of prior preparation.

But none of that takes into account the technical part of election work. One thing that frustrates election workers everywhere is how little people outside the business understand what we do. The simple fact is that late registration is very, very hard for county election workers to implement in a way that preserves a smooth election process for the rest of the voters and also maintains the integrity of the process. But people outside don’t see that. They just see the “participation vs. responsibility” debate.

I have a responsibility to see the election workers’ perspective though. And their opinion was near-universal. 55 out of 56 county election administrators wanted to roll back the date of late registration. I won’t name names, but HIGHLY partisan Democrat election administrators wanted to see that deadline rolled back. On the other hand, relatively politically inactive Democrat election administrators also completely supported rolling back the date for late registration. As well, Republican election administrators supported rolling back the date. Election administrators of no party also supported it. Among the most highly-regarded election administrators in the state – of all political stripes – all said the deadline should be rolled back.

It’s not that I don’t understand the Democrats political position. What I don’t understand is why they were so unwilling to listen to a universal consensus from the people in the field.

And after all that, it absolutely must be said: we did far, far better this year. My office undertook a campaign of public service announcements – that never used my name, face or voice, I should add – encouraging voters to register early. As well, the major Presidential campaigns were all working on getting voters registered early. County election offices worked on getting voters registered early. And the team effort worked. Lines were shorter to non-existent in some counties. They moved faster. It was a good result. But we’d have an even better result if we closed registration on the Friday before the election.

MH: Some states are enacting measures to decrease the chances of voter fraud, such as photo ID's. Another concern in many states that isn't yet an issue in Montana but that may become one in the coming years is the possibility of illegal immigrants voting in our elections. Do you have any thoughts about these and other voter fraud concerns in Montana and how the legislature might take action? It is the position of Montana Headlines that every fraudulent ballot cast disenfranchises a voter who followed the rules. Any thoughts on that?

Brad Johnson: In the last legislative session, I testified on behalf of a bill that would have made it a felony to knowingly falsify information for the purpose of registering to vote. The Democrats killed it. That’s one step the legislature could take right away that would address many of the concerns you mentioned. I share your position that if voter fraud happens, it disenfranchises honest voters.

It should be pointed out that the non-partisan Legislative Audit Division identified instances of individuals who attempted to vote more than once, but those attempts were thwarted by the statewide voter registration database. The numbers of such attempts were small, but recent Montana elections often include very close races. Just this June, we had a House primary decided by one vote. Every attempt at violating election law is significant, and I would like to see the Legislature strengthen the penalties for it.

MH: A final election followup -- how far away are we from going to vote-by-mail in Montana? We've heard some pretty convincing arguments that fraud would actually be more difficult to perpetrate with an all-mail system as opposed to our current mix of absentee ballots, in-person voting at the precinct level, and early voting at election offices.

Brad Johnson: Montana’s local election officials tend to be strongly in favor of mail ballots. I think their arguments have merit – especially in regard to the savings to the taxpayer that could be realized. But I also think we don’t want to be too hasty about this. There are questions that need to be answered. Is the county paying for the return postage? Or the voter? If we make the voter pay for the stamp, is that the same thing as charging people money to vote? If not, then where does the money for postage come from? And does the expense of postage eat up the hoped-for savings?

More than all that, I’m not sure we can completely take away a traditional in-person polling place because it offers accommodations for Montanans with disabilities that simply can’t be offered with a mail ballot. And finally, there are just some folks like me who like doing things the old fashioned way, and voting in person.

So there are two sides to the story, and we don’t know the answer yet. I’d like to see us be quite thorough in studying the issue before making any decisions.

Read Part 2 of the interview with Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson here.

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