Montana Commissioner of Political Practices denies Secretary of State's campaign complaints

Commissioner of Political Practices
Posted at 8:23 AM, Oct 31, 2022

HELENA — Montana’s top political cop has dismissed a series of campaign complaints from the Secretary of State’s Office, calling them unnecessary and “frivolous.”

Last week, Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen’s office filed complaints against three advocacy organizations – Montana Public Interest Research Group, Forward Montana and the ACLU of Montana – accusing them of violating a state law on voter registration activities. On Thursday, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan ruled none of the allegations rose to the level of an active violation. The organizations involved have claimed the complaints were a form of political retaliation.

The three complaints were short and similar in format. They claimed the organizations, which engage in voter registration efforts, had improperly encouraged Montanans to mail registration applications to a location other than their county election office.

“Our department and county election offices fielded numerous complaints from voters concerned over their privacy related to [the organizations’] illegal voter registration activity,” the complaints read.

In a follow-up letter to Mangan, SOS staff said they were contacted last month by a local election administrator, who said constituents told her MontPIRG had advised citizens to mail voter registration forms to their organization. They said they contacted the COPP office about the issue, and that they then informed MontPIRG and asked them to fix the issue. The SOS office said they later heard from other election administrators in other counties about a “nearly identical allegation” against two other organizations.

MontPIRG, an organization funded and directed by Montana university students, operates drop boxes to collect voter registration forms, which are then turned in to local election offices. Attorneys representing the organization said in a response to the SOS complaint that “a miscommunication between MontPIRG and one of its partners led the partner to share an inaccurate statement about how voter registration forms collected in the drop boxes were to be returned.” They said the issue only affected one drop box, and it was resolved before any voter sent a registration form to the wrong place.

The same attorneys represented Forward Montana, a youth-focused nonprofit whose affiliate Forward Montana Foundation also maintains drop boxes for registration forms. In their response, they said Jacobsen’s office had provided no evidence that they ever misdirected residents. They noted the photos SOS staff included in the complaint did not include a mailing address, and that the drop boxes were removed after the close of regular voter registration Oct. 11.

The attorney representing the ACLU said in a response that the ACLU of Montana Foundation had mailed registration forms out, but the accompanying letters directed recipients to mail them to their local election offices, as required.

All three organizations suggested the complaints were connected to ongoing legal action against Jacobsen’s office. Last month, a district judge in Billings overturned several new election laws passed by Republicans in the Montana Legislature, including a ban on Election Day voter registration and restrictions on using student IDs for voter identification. The three groups said the complaints weren’t filed until after they had threatened to take further action against the SOS, claiming the office was continuing to distribute election information that could mislead voters because it didn’t reflect the court ruling.

Mangan filed his decisions in all three cases the same day. He confirmed he’d already worked with MontPIRG to resolve their issue last month, and that the group apologized. For Forward Montana and the ACLU, he said he had been “unable to identify a single specific instance” where they had encouraged someone to mail a registration form somewhere other than their local election office. He called the complaints “indefinite” and “unsupported by evidence” of violations.

Mangan also criticized the SOS for filing formal complaints, saying the issues could be resolved faster and more efficiently if they were brought up informally.

“Instead, because the SOS Office filed a formal CFP Complaint on an issue that never rose to a level of a potential violation, COPP was required [to] process the formal CFP Complaint, request [the organizations] provide a formal written response, and issue a formal agency decision, a much more time consuming process,” he wrote.

Mangan said his office handles hundreds of this type of inquiry before every election, mostly informally, and that they do track allegations raised through the informal process.

In response to the commissioner’s decision, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State told MTN it appeared Mangan had dismissed the complaints partly because the SOS hadn’t investigated further before passing them on, but that the COPP, not the SOS, has the responsibility of investigating and documenting these concerns.

Regarding informal resolutions to election issues, the spokesperson said courts have now “commanded a presentation of formal violations to enact reasonable preventative laws.”

The organizations involved in the complaints praised Mangan’s decision, and again claimed the complaints were politically motivated.

“The Secretary of State should be focused on the election, not retaliating against nonprofits in Montana who are helping her do her job by promoting the right to vote,” said Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, attorney for the Forward Montana Foundation and MontPIRG. “As the Commissioner recognized, these Complaints were completely frivolous and a waste of taxpayer resources.”

Responding to the claims of retaliation, the SOS pointed MTN to their office’s follow-up letter to Mangan. In it, they said they were disappointed in the groups’ “characterization and politization” of the complaint process.

“While the active litigation related to Montana’s voting identification and registration deadline involves the subject organizations, or affiliates, as parties, the Office’s referral has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the organizations are parties in the proceedings,” said Dana Corson, the SOS’ director of elections and voter services, in the letter. “While we dispute the narrative included in their response, we see no need to address it in this improper forum.”