Local news has been hard to come by since the Great Falls Tribune suffered a drastic reduction in force. So, we’ll be highlighting state and local journalists who are working hard to cover Montana happenings. Today’s selection is a piece from The Daily Montanan. The same White Christian Nationalism that dominated the 2023 Legislative Session has also shaped Great Falls’ politics for the past two election cycles. Read about this dangerous movement here:
Let’s talk about SB 99 , the bill with a short title called, “Provide for a youth health protection act,” which I find rather ironic. Did the bill’s sponsor, Senator John Fuller, intentionally give this bill a name that does not correlate to its identity?
This bill does not protect transgender youth, but instead prohibits gender affirming care by medical professionals who treat minors for gender dysphoria by criminalizing health care professionals and prohibiting professional liability via insurance. Can you see the physicians leaving the state yet?
For a lot of reasons, I do not support this bill, but, most significantly, because I have a transgender nephew. It was a very painful process for my entire family, especially my nephew, to go through this transition. It wasn’t painful because my nephew was confused, it was painful in terms that we all had to learn a new way— new terms, a new person, a new appearance. We had to learn a new way to love and support my nephew, who fortunately, was given a gender-neutral name at birth, so that was one constant. It wasn’t as simple as checking a box, or waking up one morning and deciding that he was a boy. It was a process riddled with mistakes, despite lots of healthcare professional support.
I know my family’s experience was easy compared to what many other Montana families experience. My nephew grew up in San Diego where my brother lives, so, as you can imagine, the access to exceptional medical care that comes with a metropolitan city was readily available. The medical community was well prepared to walk us through the transition and provide family resources. And, my brother has excellent health insurance. Many transgender Montanans do not have decent insurance–especially with legislation aimed at erasing them. We were fortunate.
In our case, we made it a priority to hold an open-mind and go through this as an accepting and loving family—even when it seemed sort of crazy. Yes, it is weird to change pronouns. I remember asking my sister-in-law, “so now I can’t say niece, what do I say?” She effortlessly said, “Just say my brother’s oldest kid, leave the gender out.” That was before we learned the term “nibling.”
The awkwardness lasts a very short time and the new normal takes over, and you don’t even notice anymore. It just takes effort and, let me tell you, we fumbled and fucked up, but we were able to laugh at ourselves and be honest. I believe it has brought our family closer together because this experience showed us what is truly important—life, love, and the unconditional support of one another. The right to live and let live.
The Republican legislators in this body do not care how many lives are at stake by passing this bill. Not even a heartbreaking letter from an ER physician was enough to convince our Christian Montana governor to reconsider his deplorable position. The letter details the sad case of one Montana trans youth brought in after a failed suicide attempt, and who attributed their hopelessness to “my state doesn’t want me.”
My nephew was required to go through YEARS of therapy (with a licensed physician specializing in gender affirming care) and, only when it was determined that my nephew would absolutely benefit from different therapeutic interventions, were options offered. It wasn’t simply a primary care doctor and some prescriptions handed out. It was methodical, yet fluid, and the plan changed as new things developed. Only years after THAT was my nephew able to have “top surgery” – another term we had to learn, to have his breasts removed.
Gratefully, my nephew is now engaged to his life partner, and doing all the normal things that couples do. He has a job he loves and is living a full life in a community and family that honors and respects his life.
Transgender, nonbinary, and gender diversity is not something that citizens should meddle into, much less lawmakers. It should be left to the individuals, families, and medical professionals going through this experience. It has been painful, and provocative, to listen to some of the legislators testify so brazenly about a very sensitive, serious, personal issue. If the Governor, the Freedom Caucus, and the state Republicans (Glimm, Gist, Galloway, Sheldon-Galloway, Emrich, and McKamey) truly want to protect trans youth and LGBTQ+ kids as they claim, then they should take action to support Gender Health programs in the state. They could introduce legislation to study the needs of the LGBTQ+ and trans people, they could invite and encourage trained, compassionate physicians, social workers, mental health professionals and others to increase access for this specific group of individuals who deserve quality healthcare like ALL MONTANANS. Full-spectrum healthcare is not asking for too much!
Purge– verb, remove (a group of people considered undesirable) from an organization or place in an abrupt or violent way.
Authoritarian regimes across the globe and throughout history have conducted purges to solidify their power. From Stalin’s Great Terror in 1937 to the Chinese Communist Party’s Great Revolution of the 1960s and 1970’s, the end results have always been the same. People and groups have been surveilled, harassed and oppressed. Free expression has been stifled, edicts have been issued, and dissenters have been targeted. Purges start small and build until they assure compliance and consolidate the leader’s power.
The far-right wing of the Montana Republican party has been conducting its own purge. After being rebuked by the State Republican Party, former Republican Governor Marc Racicot published an open letter to Republican leadership warning of the purge mentality. In his letter he said, “Republicans have recently experienced the resignation of a twice-elected, young Republican legislator because of the party’s coercive efforts to control the exercise of her discretion in voting for what she thought was right. You have also censured two Republican members of the Legislature for not voting the way you deemed appropriate and have witnessed the defection of growing numbers of Republicans in your caucus, and across Montana, who feel bound to their conscience and their constitution more than their party”.
The purges within the Republican Party are only part of the takeover by far-right extremists in Montana. They also seek to purge virtually everyone they disagree with from being able to fully participate in society. Sexual minorities, native people, immigrants, and low-income people are all being targeted as lazy, perverted and a threat to “the rest of us.” Creating an environment of us versus them as a mechanism to mobilize hate is as old as humanity itself. Nothing good has ever come from it.
The arrogance of certainty demonstrated by Republican leaders in Montana is in a time-tested play book used by authoritarian leaders everywhere. You may not care that Greg Gianforte believes that men and dinosaurs lived on earth at the same time, but he cares and is moving public money to private schools teaching his Fred Flintstone version of history and science.
Education Superintendent Elsie Arntzen is promoting history lessons stripped of facts to promote the far right’s own version of reality. Attorney General Austin Knudsen, the legislature and the Governor have engaged in attacks on the independence of the judiciary to eliminate check and balances and consolidate power.
Congressman Matt Rosendale joined the Freedom Caucus alongside the most extreme right-wing members of congress and is busily organizing his own Freedom Caucus here in Montana. You can almost hear the goose-stepping jackboots coming down the street.
This would not have been possible without the erosion of political and social norms brought on by the rise of Donald Trump and Fox News. The January 6th armed insurrection has become peaceful protest, white people have become “the victims,” desperate people seeking asylum from violence in their own country have become rapists and murders, and caring about your neighbor is now derisively called being “woke.”
In the Republican right, citizens are urged to engage in politics using fear, anger, and hate.
There is an old wives’ tale about a frog sitting still in a heating pan of water despite the increasing temperature until it is so hot the frog dies. It did not notice the slow change in temperature. It is a great metaphor for the political environment here in Montana. Don’t be that frog.
Ken Toole is a former State Senator and former Vice Chairman of the Montana Public Service Commission.
After hearing Sandra Merchant’s lame presentation last Friday, you probably thought things could not possibly get worse in the County Elections Office. Sorry to burst your bubble, but today things did get worse.
If you visited or called the Elections Office today, Jan Wenaas may have greeted you with a friendly smile and twinkle in her eye. She’s happy to have infiltrated the Elections Office camp, working behind the scenes as a self-proclaimed volunteer for Sandra Merchant. So, why is that a problem?
First, Wenaas is the face of Cascade County’s far-right “Election Integrity” committee, those pesky election deniers who believe the 2020 election was stolen, despite nearly 60 lawsuits whose outcomes proved otherwise. Yes, Wenaas believes The Big Lie; the same lie that MyPillow CEO, Mike Lindell, has been spouting and several Montana legislators have bought into – Steve and Lola Galloway, and Steve Gist to name a few.
In fact, Wenaas was instrumental arranging the bogus dog-and-pony show last year bringing State Senator Theresa Manzella of Ravalli County and her entourage of election deniers to Great Falls, including some dude from Colorado who claims he witnessed first-hand election malfeasance in his state. Their presentation contended vote count machines results are intercepted by Venezuelans, and the election outcomes changed at the blink of an eye. Wait, what??
Finally, Wenaas signed onto a petition sent to then County Commissioners Briggs, Larson and Ryan calling for them to immediately do among other things, the following:
Ban mail-in ballots except for overseas military, disabled or other qualified persons
Ballot turn in on election day only, with one day counting
Clean voter roles by requiring all qualified county residents to re-register
OMG, why is a woman who clearly does not believe in the state’s voting process sitting in front of a county computer at a desk in the Elections Office? So what that she’s a volunteer. She has access to the county phones. Does she also have access to voter registrations? Is she going to be handling ballots – those horrible mail ballots she believes the county should discontinue? Why is a volunteer working in the sacred space of the Elections Office, anyway?
Shocked yet? If so, tell your county commissioners:
Don’t waste your time contacting Commissioner Rae Grulkowski, newly dubbed by many county citizens as Sandra Merchant’s handler. Probably not worth your time to question the Elections Office self-proclaimed protector. And what’s up with that?
Maybe let Eric Bryson, Executive Director of the Montana Association of Counties, know you are concerned at: [email protected] Next thing you know, Merchant will be telling us the vote counting machines don’t work, and everything needs to be hand counted. Stranger things have happened, or shall we say, are happening.
If you like free and fair elections, brace yourself. Cascade County is in trouble and as a voter, you need to be informed. Sandra Merchant, election denier and now County Clerk & Recorder refuses to do her job. She needs to be replaced and soon! Send an email to the following people today and tell them to “ImmediatelyREMOVE Sandra Merchant as Clerk and Recorder for not fulfilling the duties of her elected office.”
[email protected] – MT Association of Elected Officials Executive Director, Eric Bryson
Ask the folks at the Sun River School District who requested a mail ballot election for their board of trustees. Merchant recently informed them she cannot run their requested mail ballot election. Was Sun River School District late with their request? Heck no, school administrators met required timelines but Merchant sent a letter saying they would need to run a poll election instead. Her excuse? She claimed the recent closing of IPS, the county’s mailing service, prevents her from running a mail ballot election. In her letter to the School District it states she could not find another source to mail ballots.
Sound fishy? It is. In the last year, Merchant and her ilk have publicly derided the mail ballot process, emphasizing their bias for poll elections. So is this Merchant’s backhanded way of eliminating the mail ballot process in Cascade County? You decide.
Here’s some facts you should know:
There are five elections between now and June and possibly two more in the fall – Sun River and Great Falls Public School elections (May), West Great Falls Drainage District (May), Ft Shaw Irrigation election (May), Library levy special election (June). In autumn, the city commission/mayor primary (September) and general election for city commission and mayor election (November).
Over 85% of the county’s voters prefer and REQUEST mail ballots for elections.
Mail ballots are more convenient for voters AND more cost-effective. It takes hundreds of paid people to run a poll election and a handful to run a mail ballot election.
The Elections office must train and oversee these poll workers. Not sure Merchant knows her job, since word has it that her office called the Sun River School District and asked them who their election judges are. Doesn’t Sandra Merchant know it is HER JOB to get the election judges?
The burden for non-county elections is borne by the requesting entity, so a poll election costs the city, library, school districts, water districts, etc. considerably more than a mail ballot election.
The library has been notified that their levy may need to be run in autumn when the city will be running its public safety levy. No doubt both levies will fail if that happens.
Merchant has also claimed that the redistricting process is going to take time away from planning any mail ballot elections. That process does not start until July, so why the hold-up for these four spring elections?
IPS mailing services gave ample notice of their business closure. In very early February, Cascade County Commissioner, Joe Briggs, asked Merchant to research other mailing service so mail ballots could be done this spring. Had Merchant contacted Kalispell which has 50,000+ voters in the county, she might have found a solution. But hey, why look very hard when your objective is to eliminate mail ballot voting?
It’s common knowledge that Merchant does not trust the county’s reliable count machines to tabulate voter ballots. Are Merchant’s gymnastics to eliminate mail ballots just a precursor to hand-counting ballots in the future? Let’s hope not.
Ranked-choice voting (RCV), also known as instant-runoff voting, is a nonpartisan voting system that allows voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than selecting a single candidate. In a ranked-choice voting system, voters mark their ballot by ranking the candidates in order of preference, such as first choice, second choice, third choice, and so on.
In the first round of vote counting, only the first-choice votes are counted. If one candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, that candidate wins the election. However, if no candidate receives a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the fewest first-choice votes is eliminated, and then the second-choice votes on those ballots are counted instead. This process is repeated until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.
In our current plurality system, a candidate could win with a mere 33% of the vote. This leaves nearly 70% of voters not choosing the winner, sometimes feeling unrepresented, and caught in a game of splitting and wasting their vote. The purpose of RCV is to ensure that the winning candidate has broad support among voters. By allowing voters to rank candidates, RCV can reduce the impact of candidates splitting the vote, promote positive campaigning, and it has been shown to reduce the amount of wasted votes by three times.
A noisy minority, who don’t trust the intelligence of voters, testified at the hearing for HB 598 that RCV is complicated and claimed that voters are unhappy with RCV. However, a vast majority of those surveyed have found it very easy to use and want to use it again–between 75% and 94% (depending on the location surveyed).
RCV is used in several countries around the world, including Australia, Ireland, and New Zealand. In the United States, several cities have adopted RCV for local elections, including San Francisco, Oakland, Austin, New York City, Minneapolis and twenty-three cities in Utah. Some states have also adopted RCV for statewide elections, including Maine and Alaska, and seven states use RCV for military and overseas voting.
However, in Montana, even though no jurisdiction uses RCV (and some would argue that our constitution does not currently allow it to be used), HB 598 seeks to preemptively ban RCV from being used or even considered in Montana.
When HB 598 reached the floor, State Administration Committee member, Rep. Paul Green, changed his vote. When he realized that this ban would expressly limit local communities from choosing RCV for their local elections, he went from supporting the ban to opposing the ban. Had he considered this before, this bill would have died in committee. Despite this important consideration, the ban passed the House on March 3rd, with fourteen Republicans and all Democrats opposing the ban. You will be happy to know that Great Falls representatives George Nikolakakos (HD26) and Scott Kerns (HD23) were among those opposing this ban.