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The ballot initiative that would have raised tobacco taxes and extended the Montana Medicaid expansion program was defeated in the most expensive Montana ballot election ever. The opposition campaign, funded by the makers of Camel and Marlboro cigarettes spent $17 million. Initiative 185 proponents, led by Montana community hospitals and other health care organizations, spent about $8 million.

Montanans know who spent how much in the state ballot and state office races because of our Montana campaign finance disclosure laws.

Disclosure and public access are vital to free and fair elections. That’s why we urge Gazette readers to stay alert for changes that may be floated during the upcoming Montana Legislature.

As of this week, Montana’s 150 lawmakers had requested more than 130 bill drafts dealing with election laws. Most of these requests haven’t yet been drafted as bills and many give no information about how the legislator proposes to change election laws.

Among the three election bills already introduced, Senate Bill 14 seeks to correct an error in a 2015 state law that says the governor can make an appointment to fill a U.S. House vacancy. That would be contrary to the U.S. Constitution that requires representatives to be elected by the people, but allows U.S. senators to be appointed. The State Administration and Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously voted to support this bill, which was introduced by Sen. Dee Brown, R-Hungry Horse.

Several legislators have requested bill drafts to change campaign finance laws, but no text was available earlier this week. Other election bill requests include:

  • Sen. Diane Sands, D-Missoula: Provide $1 million for biennium for county matching grants to purchase election equipment.
  • Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka: Revise voter registration to end at 5 p.m. the Friday prior to election. (Registration now ends at 8 p.m. on Election Day.)
  • Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell: Eliminate the office of political practices. Skees has another bill request to “revise laws related to strengthening voter identification.”

Montana has been fortunate that our good election laws have, so far, protected us from some of the voter suppression tactics that have been used in other states. Voter roll purges kept thousands from voting in states that cut off voter registration before Election Day. Montana’s late registration law protects voter rights because they may still register and vote on Election Day.

Requiring voters to have identification that many of them don’t possess has kept people ranging from college students to Native Americans from casting ballots. Montanans must beware of any proposal that makes casting a ballot more difficult.

This wouldn’t be the first time that lawmakers tried to abolish the Commissioner of Political Practices Office. Getting rid of Montana’s campaign watchdog is a bad idea; the office is needed more than ever as money floods into our elections.

Counties are in need of updated election equipment. Lawmakers and the state’s top elections official, Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, should recognize the costs that elections place on county governments and work with counties to find equitable solutions. After all, county officials and lawmakers are supposed to be serving the same constituents — the people of Montana.

Many bill requests won’t actually be introduced as legislation and fewer still will become law. But it is important to keep an eye on how lawmakers may seek to change the fundamental rights of Montana residents to vote, to know about candidates, issues and spending. Changes to election laws should make the process more accessible to all eligible voters — not less accessible.

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