Two bills aimed at changing the way Montana runs its elections is moving through the Montana Legislature, though one measure is drawing criticism from election administrators and county commissioners who worry the state’s election processes might be further politicized.

The bills, sponsored by Sen. Gordon Vance, R-Belgrade, seek to alter systems of accountability in state elections.

Senate Bill 92 would require that election administrators be elected officials in their jurisdiction. Currently, some election administrators in Montana counties are appointed positions. The new bill would require them to appoint an elected official to run elections going forward.

“I think elections are important enough that the folks that run them should be held accountable to the people that vote, pure and simple,” Vance said during a committee hearing.

One proponent of the bill from Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office argued accountability should be found in positions as important as the election administrator.

But several county commissioners and election administrators, like Carbon County Commissioner Bill Bullock, argued the move is unnecessary, and that in his county, the election administrator is directly responsible to the county clerk.

“Forcing election administrators to be elected only muddies the waters,” Bullock said.

Another county commissioner, William Barron from Lake County, said appointed election administrators keep elections nonpartisan.

“If the appointed position doesn’t work for large counties like Gallatin, Cascade or Yellowstone, fine; let them elect,” Barron said. “Don’t make other counties change what works for them.

Vance also sponsored Senate Bill 93, a measure that aims to allow poll watchers at collection sites for mail ballots. He said the inspiration for the bill came from reports he heard from around the state of election administrators refusing to allow poll watchers at ballot dropoff sites because those sites were not “polling places.”

Clinton King, a resident of Gallatin County, testified in support of the bill and said he volunteered to be a poll watcher in the 2020 election, but was not allowed to ask questions to election officials about mail ballot dropoff locations.

“I think Senator Vance bringing up the word change to include ‘places of deposit’ would be really helpful,” King said. 

SB 92 and 93 passed out of committee and must receive approval from the full Senate before heading to the House.

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