Elections conspiracy bill gets hearing, Native Caucus writes letter in opposition

By: - January 20, 2023 1:39 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena, said she objected to the use of the phrase “Zuckerbucks” to describe a grant from the nonprofit Center for Technology and Civic Life, during a hearing on Wednesday.

Madeline Malisa, one of the proponents for the bill, said “Zuckerbucks” again.

The conspiracy is rooted in conservative skepticism surrounding a $350 million donation from Mark Zuckerberg to the nonprofit during the 2020 election and a belief that the money influenced the outcome.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Shelley Vance, R-Belgrade, would prohibit private funds from being used to pay to conduct an election at any level in the state, making it a felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail, a fine of up to $50,000, or both. More than a dozen other states with Republican legislative majorities have passed similar laws.

“All costs and expenses relating to conducting elections must be paid for with public funds,” the bill reads.

Senate GOP leadership promoted the bill earlier in the week during a press availability.

Darin Gaub, chairman of the Lewis and Clark County Republican Central Committee, described the bill as ensuring fair elections and avoiding the appearance of influence in the process.

Opponents of the bill say that donations are a lifeline to the Native American tribes in the state, where public funds are limited, especially for satellite voting locations to reach remote voters.

“Senate Bill 117 is a direct attack on the county’s ability to conduct proper elections,” said Patrick Yawakie, representing the Blackfeet Tribe.

He said the reality is that in many parts of Montana, especially rural ones, there is a lack of resources to fund the necessary technology infrastructure and other election office and polling place needs.

Yawakie said tribes put up the funds for satellite polling locations in Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation and Hot Springs on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

“Will the state try and charge tribes with a felony?” he said.

The Montana American Indian Caucus submitted a letter in opposition to the bill, writing, “This bill would impact tribal communities negatively by restricting the already scarce funding that could go toward ensuring voting access for American Indians.”

Keegan Medrano with the ACLU of Montana said the bill would not only impact Indian Country, it will harm older Montanans, Montanans with disabilities and others who live in rural areas.

“We believe that robust, predictable public funding is the best path forward, but that is not currently the reality,” he said. “And this bill pushes us over a fiscal cliff without a safety net.”

“I guess they purchased a Republican supermajority,” Medrano quipped of the conspiracy.

Sen. Wendy McKamey, R-Great Falls, asked if the bill would impact volunteers who donate hours of time facilitating elections throughout the state.

Clerk and Recorder for Ravalli County and head of the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders Regina Plettenberg said she would need to request clarity on that front. She said with the current language, she may need to have to pay the volunteers a nominal amount.

Plettenberg said the county received $19,000 from the Center for Technology and Civic Life grants.

“Anyone is welcome to look at absolutely every penny I spent on it,” she said.

Sen. Theresa Manzella, R-Hamilton, said she was concerned about adding additional code in a new section and potentially making it harder for elections officials, though she expressed support for the bill.

The Montana Code Annotated reads that “unless specifically provided otherwise, all costs of the regularly scheduled primary and general elections shall be paid by the counties and other political subdivisions for which the elections are held.”

The committee has yet to take executive action on the bill as of Friday morning, according to the legislative tracking website.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.