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Jacobsen, Bennett snarl in Montana Secretary of State race debate

Jacobsen, Bennett snarl in Montana Secretary of State race debate

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The candidates for Montana Secretary of State traded barbs of corruption and anti-Americanism on Sunday in a debate over who will fill the office overseeing elections and business registrations.

The race features current Deputy Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen, a Republican from Helena, against state Sen. Bryce Bennett, a Democrat from Missoula. They are competing to replace Republican Secretary of State Cory Stapleton, who failed to win the Republican nomination for Montana's sole congressional seat. 

Jacobsen worked for U.S. West in the telecommunications industry before joining the Secretary of State’s office in 2017. Bennett has served in the Legislature for 10 years and worked for seven years at MontPIRG before that. MTN News political reporter Mike Dennison moderated the debate.

Both candidates came out swinging, with Bennett using his opening question to accuse Jacobsen and incumbent Stapleton of “corruption and incompetence” involving government contracts to political donors, misuse of state-owned vehicles and nepotism. Jacobsen countered that Bennett was “anti-gun, anti-life and anti-business.”

Asked what they’d done to warrant the job, Jacobsen touted the reduction of office staff from 60 to 40 employees while reducing customer wait times and expanding automated business registry services to 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Bennett rebutted that those actions had “gutted the office” and made it harder for businesses to get their paperwork completed.

Bennett said he supported automated voter registration as a way of making it easier for Montanans to vote, and that he would push back on any attempts to suppress voting. Jacbosen said the only voter suppression she saw was from Bennett, “who’s pushing for all-mail ballots on reservations, trying to take away the right for people to vote in person.”

Dennison then asked Jacobsen what evidence she had Bennett would allow people to cheat in elections. She pointed to Bennett’s support of automated online registration, which would allow fraud. Bennett countered that the current Republican administration had been “asleep at the wheel” and slow to request help from a National Guard cyber-security unit or experts from the private sector to keep hackers out of the state election system.

In her direct question to Bennett, Jacobsen accused him of being “anti-American and an advocate of defunding the police.”

Bennett called that a lie and something he’d never said. He also linked her to the office’s publication of an error-riddled voters guide, which costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to redo.

Jacobsen appeared to misunderstand a question from Dennison about whether she supported a lawsuit brought by the Trump presidential campaign and the Republican national and state campaign committees challenging Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s order allowing Montana counties to choose all-mail ballot formats.

“We continue to operate with lawsuit after lawsuit in our office, and my only goal is to do exactly what the law requires the Secretary of State to do,” Jacobsen said. Asked a second time if she supported or opposed the Trump Campaign lawsuit, she replied the office had faced 12 different lawsuits in the past three years. Stapleton is named as a plaintiff in the Trump lawsuit in his position as Secretary of State.

Bennett called the lawsuit “partisan politics at its worst,” adding that no Montanan should have to choose between their health and their right to vote.

The Secretary of State sits on the five-member Montana Land Board. Bennett said he looked forward to fighting special interests who’ve called for selling those state trust lands to the highest bidder. Jacobsen said she believed state trust lands existed to generate revenue for schools, and she supported natural resource development along with public access to those lands.

Dennison asked why, in a time of deep partisan politics, someone should consider voting for an opposing party for the office. Bennett said he’d been endorsed by both Democratic and Republican former secretaries of state and had a record of bipartisan compromise in the Legislature. Jacobsen said she stood for the values of “life, pro-gun, pro-business and free enterprise.”

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“I’m glad we didn’t do this 30 years ago because there were a lot of things different back in those days. The regulations were not as stringent, people’s mindsets were different and I think we’re doing a far far better job of it now than we probably could’ve conceived of 30 years ago and I’m very glad for that.”

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