The race for Montana Secretary of State is not grabbing the headlines of other bouts at the top of the ticket. Yet, it pits two people against each other who both know the office very well.
Incumbent Democrat Linda McCulloch has served as Secretary of State since 2008. In that race, she defeated then Republican Secretary of State Brad Johnson.
In 2012, Johnson is running again, looking for a rematch. Each claims to be better suited for the role of the state’s chief elections officer.
Democratic Secretary of State Linda McCulloch was on the road to Billings Friday. She was working a Secretary of State booth for the state teachers conference. This trip was part of her official duties. She says the campaign has been fairly quiet.
“The U.S. Senate Race is getting all the attention and the Governor’s Race is getting all the attention and that’s as it should be,” McCulloch said.
McCulloch touts herself as a budget hawk who has cut wasteful spending almost 20 percent since taking the office from Republican Brad Johnson, all without losing jobs.
“When I took the office four years ago, it was almost a million dollars in the red. It had been in the red for three straight years,” she said. She says she has turned the office around and it is now running ahead, or in the black.
Her opponent, former Secretary of State Republican Brad Johnson says that’s just not true.
“In all four years, at the end of the fiscal year the bills were paid and there was a multi-million dollar positive fund balance,” Johnson said.
So who’s right?
Well, checking with the Legislative Fiscal Division, which keeps track of this kind of this stuff—it turns out, they’re both right.
Here’s how it works, the Secretary of State’s Office operates off of fees. It is always supposed to have a large amount of money left in the bank at the end of the year.
That’s the positive fund balance Johnson was talking about.
When the office spends more than it takes in, it draws down on that cash reserve. Senior fiscal analyst Kris Wilkinson says both Johnson and McCulloch have had years where they have spent more than they take in. She says they have also both brought in more than they’ve spent in certain years.
“When you have higher revenues than the expenditures you accumulate (ending) fund balance. And that has occurred under both Johnson and McCulloch.”
Johnson did spend more than he brought in a couple years in a row before McCulloch took over. But that was for a big IT infrastructure project, updating old computer systems. Johnson says that project was on track for completion last year but was stopped by McCulloch. McCulloch says she has had to renegotiate the contract for that project because it cost too much.
On other issues, Johnson is a supporter of stricter voting laws. He wants to require voters to show photo ID at the polls and eliminate election-day voter registration. He says this would be an effort to combat voter fraud. Johnson says that’s not a big problem in Montana and he wants to keep it that way.
“I think it is simply prudent and responsible for the chief elections officer to be proactive in an effort to place safeguards that will preserve the integrity of the elections we currently have in Montana,” Johnson said.
“Well, I’m in full support of the state’s voting laws,” McCulloch said. “They more than meet the Help America Vote Act Law and we have no fraud in Montana. So I think it’s a problem in search of a solution.”
What McCulloch means is there are no documented cases of voter fraud in the state. She agrees with same-day voter registration.
Johnson says stands by his belief, saying Montana is not immune from the fraud experienced by other states. Under his proposal, the state would issue free photo ID cards to those without something else, like a driver’s license. He says that would cost the state money, but it would be negligible.
“One place beyond National Security where it is appropriate for the government to spend money it’s in the area of preserving integrity of elections,” Johnson said.
The two candidates do have different ideas for how elections should run in Montana. Their biggest challenge may be getting voters to pay attention to their different visions among everything else happening this election year.