HELENA — Secretary of State Bob Browns office looks much like it did at the beginning of the last century, but he runs it with an eye toward the future.
The service that we provide is affected and impacted significantly by technology, Brown said recently. Surrounded by framed photos of Teddy Roosevelt and Mike Mansfield and a drawing by his daughter of an elephants rear-end, the 53-year-old Brown expounded on the possibilities.
Already, he has an updated and expanded Web site. Coming soon, he said, is better Internet access to information his office provides to businesses. Possibilities for the future are Internet voting and electronic storage of the thousands of documents his office must store and protect.
Brown, in only his sixth month as secretary of state, is no newcomer to Montana government, and he has a number of plans for the future of his new office.
|the first six months Secretary of State Bob Brown says
hes been busy during his first six months in office. Here are some
of what he sees as his major accomplishments:
The secretary of states office has a new Web site at sos.state.mt.us and has begun posting public documents online. They will be available through both his site and a link on the state site www.discoveringmontana.com.
He requested and lobbied for several bills during the 2001 legislative session. House Bills 234 and 235, respectively, make electronic signatures legally valid and clarify the usage of business identifiers. HB612 cleans up the states election laws. Senate Bill 493, which he worked on with Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda McCulloch, asks voters to amend the Montana Constitution to allow the state to invest some school trust land revenue in stocks. SB495 and SB511 increase funding for public schools and universities. HB639 allows his office to run more like a private business (it receives no state funding), reducing the need to raise new fees.
Brown also requested a legislative audit of the records management bureau to determine if there is a better way to store public documents and bought new scanning equipment so government agencies can store and access public documents in a digital format.
served his first term in the Montana House in 1971. He was a 23-year-old just out of college and was representing the Flathead Valley. He won his second term while on active duty in the Navy — and while prohibited by Navy policy from actively campaigning. (He got help from friends at home.) In 1974, he was elected to the Senate, where he remained until January 1997, serving his last two years as Senate president.
Former Gov. Marc Racicot, a good friend, said Brown developed a knack for consensus during his tenure in the Legislature and described him as principled, yet practical.
For most of his tenure in the Legislature, Brown also taught history and American government at high schools in Bigfork, Kalispell and Whitefish. He always made sure students in his senior classes registered to vote if they were old enough.
You develop a real belief in the system and a commitment to the political process, he said of his work as both a lawmaker and teacher.Committed to the processBrowns work with students and his commitment to the elections process impressed Angela Fultz Nordstrom, chief of staff for former Secretary of State Mike Cooney. Nordstrom and Cooney met with Brown before he began his campaign.
Mike was big into going to schools, talking to them about the voting process, Nordstrom said. That was something that we felt was probably positive from Bob.
When Brown decided to run for secretary of state in 2000, he said, part of the appeal was that the job requires overseeing all statewide elections.
Brown said the importance of well-run elections became all too clear in 2000, when former Vice President Al Gore and current President George Bush hinged their hopes on a few thousand hanging and pregnant chads on punch-card ballots in Florida.
We wouldnt want a complicated and controversial process like we had in Florida to happen here in Montana, he said.
Replacing punch-card ballots is part of Browns 10-part election revision plan, which also includes improving voter outreach, creating incentives for getting people to work at the polls and clarifying Montana election law.
Twenty Montana counties still count ballots by hand. Thirty use fill-in-the-dot ballots read by optical scanners, similar to those used for standardized tests. And six still use punch-cards.
Brown said the hand-counted ballots arent a problem; the process is virtually the same as using an optical scanner. One good set of rules about how to count the ballots and what to do about indeterminate votes could cover both, he said.
But he wants the punch-card counties to switch to optical scanning. The problem isnt the hanging and pregnant chads so much as the ability to use one simple set of rules statewide. In Florida in 2000, he said, the confusion came about because there were at least five different kinds of ballots and 11 different ways to count them.
Brown said to expect a lot of standardization and modernization from his office in the next four years.Information businessAlthough the election revisions get a lot of attention, the office also serves as one of the most important sources of business information in the state, maintaining business and lien records. He wants to make those public documents as accessible as possible and will begin providing some records online this month.
His chief deputy, Jason Thielman, a former student of Browns, said its important to bring the office into the technological age, especially by making it easier for people to do business in Montana.
Within the next year, Thielman said, most businesses will be able to request and file necessary forms online.
Doing business with the secretary of state will be as technologically seamless as trading stocks on Ameritrade, he said.
Doug Mitchell, chief of staff for Cooney from 1989 until 1995, said he thinks the office has already come a long way — and needs to continue moving forward.
Mitchell recalled an argument during the 1988 campaign — the year Cooney was first elected and Thielman entered junior high — over whether the secretary of states office should have its own fax machine. The office eventually got its fax and, later, an updated computer network.
As the expectations of the customers become higher, the need for government to keep up with those become very, very important, Mitchell said.Online voting?But Brown is taking his time on some proposals, especially Internet voting and electronic document storage.
|Secretary of State staff Secretary of State Bob Brown
was elected in 2000 to serve a four-year term, during which he will
make $67,512 a year. Several members of his staff are political
appointees, who serve at his will until he leaves office. Here are
their names, jobs and salaries.
Jason Thielman, chief deputy, $53,020.
Janice Doggett, legal counsel, $47,344.
Pat Haffey, deputy of operations and business services, $45,192.
Elaine Graveley, elections deputy, $43,040.
Kathy Lubke, administrative rules deputy, $37,881.
Gayle Shirley, public information officer/land board staffer, $35,490.
Judy Rolfe, deputy assistant, $33,236.
Della Pedersen, project coordinator, $28,030.
need to be open to the possibility that that might happen, he said of Internet elections, adding that he doesnt want Montana to be the first or the last state to try it.
Allowing people to vote online would likely increase turnout, but the problem is preventing fraud and maintaining the secrecy of the ballot, he said.
Nordstrom, who works for a company that helps states get online, said the Cooney administration also considered Internet voting and introduced 1999 legislation allowing overseas military personnel to cast Internet ballots when the technology is available.
You want to make sure that the person whos voting is the person who says theyre voting, she said. The technology is there. The ability is there; its just making sure that we have the security, so we dont jeopardize the elections process.
With document storage, the problem is finding a system that wont be outdated in two years, Brown said.
We thought wed better look before we leap, he said. He asked the legislative auditor to look at the current system and make recommendations about how to update it. He expects a response as early as this fall.
The Internet and other computer applications are just more compatible with the direction the world is going, Brown said, but its got its limitations, and we need to recognize that.Editors note: This is the first of a package of stories from the Gazette State Bureau on newly elected statewide officials first months in office.