Mary Sheehy Moe: Foxes and doggies and frogs – Oh my!

I struggle to find the apt analogy: The dog that finally catches the bus? The frog that doesn’t notice the water is boiling? The fox in the henhouse?

All of the above swirl around the drain of what’s happening to the most fundamental of our democratic rights — the right to vote. The nationwide wave of efforts to discourage voting laps even at Montana’s shores. On the pretext of securing election integrity, Republicans continually advance bills making it harder for some populations to vote — Native Americans, college students, the homebound, people who can’t get off work or find a way into town on two different days to register and then to vote.

But now we’re seeing a new twist — relentless efforts to discredit those who run our elections and replace them with election deniers. In 2022, election deniers comprised 80% of the candidates running nationwide in secretary of state races. Half won their primaries. Only 8% ultimately won the seat. Thankfully, most voters don’t want a Fox-fed fox in their most precious henhouse.

Unfortunately, there’s more. Since late 2020, 161 chief local elections officials (40%) in 11 Western states, Montana included, left their positions. The average experience levels in those 161 offices plummeted from approximately eight years to about one. With the cybersecurity, technology and legal issues surrounding elections, experience matters. As the cross-partisan political reform group Issue One cautions, inexperienced elections officers are “more prone to making small mistakes based on lack of knowledge — mistakes that, however innocuous, may be interpreted by hyper-partisans as malicious acts.”

What those 161 offices have now isn’t a fox in the henhouse, but a dog who caught the bus. This inexperience feeds the very narrative election deniers were yipping between howled lies before the newbies were elected. You need look no farther than Great Falls, to see how alarmingly this dog don’t hunt. Since being elected clerk and recorder in 2022, the election denier there has fouled up election after election.

In May, flood and irrigation district elections were so riddled with errors that both districts have turned to the courts for resolution.

The school board election was even worse — contradictory ballot instructions, misfolded ballots hampering ballot-counting, some voters receiving two ballots, others getting none, voters who work unable to vote because the polling place opened late, signature verification hindered by the fact that ballots were separated from envelopes … in short, so many gaffes that the court appointed an election monitor to oversee the next election.

Enter June’s library levy election: miscommunication on election dates, instructions so erroneous they had to be reprinted three times, multiple ballots to the same voter; no ballots for some voters … same-new, same-new.

And in the municipal elections last week, the nightmare continued. In addition to the now-usual dysfunction, inadequate prior notice had voters reporting to the usual polling place (the fairgrounds), where they were directed to the elections office, a small space on a busy downtown street with parking at a premium. Already disgruntled, voters plugged meters and queued up to enter a room whose very décor screamed partiality.

An enlarged Corinthians quote and a big ceramic elephant dominated the counter space. The walls were filled with pithy, pick-a-fight quotations incongruously placed next to more charitable tokens. My favorite: A large wooden cross adjacent to an even larger picture of a longhorn emblazoned with the words, “Do No Harm. But Take No Bull.” Jesus would be so pleased.

These are relatively small-potatoes local elections with low voter turnout. But 2024 is just around the corner. What’s that, Kermit? Water too warm?

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