Jeff Essmann has a tough job. As chairman of the Montana Republican Party, he has to analyze every idea with one goal in mind: helping Republicans win elections. But not everything good for Montana is good for the GOP. Sometimes, circumstances force him to take up a position with little merit, solely because it might help his party. In the movie about teens trying to save their community center that is Montana politics, Essmann is the guy with the bulldozer. He looks like the villain, but from his perspective, he's just trying to build a mall.
Essmann probably has the toughest job in the state, unless you count hanging drywall, waiting tables, retail, agriculture, manufacturing or any job that requires you to be there at specific times, even if you have something important to do elsewhere. All those jobs are harder than what Essmann does.
I mention this because Essmann has been campaigning hard against SB 305, a bill to allow voting by mail in the upcoming special election. County officials of both parties overwhelmingly support it, because elections are expensive. Counties have to hire poll workers and people to coordinate them, rent spaces, secure ballots—all the costs that counties budget for on a two- and four-year basis, but not for surprise elections right after they just spent a bunch of money on the big one.
Mail-in ballots save taxpayer dollars—something the Republican Party consistently supports. But as Essmann pointed out in an email last month, mail-in ballots can also benefit Democrats. Candidates on the Democratic ticket consistently outperform Republicans in early voting. The Montanans whom Essmann refers to as "low-propensity voters"those who cast ballots in one out of every four elections or fewer—trend to the left of voters who show up in person every Election Day.
It's not hard to understand why. In-person voting always happens on a Tuesday, during the hours when many people are at work. Even when polling places remain open after 6 p.m., the lines are often long. Low-propensity voters include a lot of people with hourly jobs that don't offer them the flexibility to leave in the middle of the day, and/or childcare responsibilities that keep them from spending two hours at the fairgrounds after work.
The low-propensity voters who don't have jobs often lack reliable transportation, too. Senior citizens and college students are two groups of people who have a hard time getting to their polling places and are more likely to vote by mail. All of these groups—students, non-managerial workers and seniors on fixed incomes—are more likely to vote Democrat. It therefore makes sense that Essmann would fight SB 305 as a bad deal for Republicans.
But great ghost of William Clark, what awful optics. Essmann's position is basically that Republicans do better when fewer people vote. That's tough to square with the ideals of American democracy. And even if you think that one-person, one-vote business is hooey, there's still the problem of asking counties to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make May's election friendlier to Greg Gianforte. When the GOP can't make its case on fiscal responsibility, what arguments does it have left?
The tenuousness of Essmann's position went on display last Thursday when a House Judiciary Committee hearing on SB 305 descended into chaos. County commissioners and other interested parties from around the state traveled to Helena to testify in support of the bill, but time ran out before they could all be heard. When chairman Alan Doane, R-Bloomfield, gaveled down SB 305 supporter Carole Mackin of Helena—as the rules allowed him to do—she refused to yield and was escorted out by police. The room erupted in chanting and cheers.
Probably, the Judiciary Committee shouldn't have been hearing SB 305 in the first place. The Rules of the Montana Legislature say that bills pertaining to elections and voting belong to the State Administration Committee. But House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, assigned the bill to Judiciary over the objections of its sponsor, Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls—probably because Judiciary was more likely to kill it.
What we have here is a lopsided controversy. County commissioners, a majority of the state Senate, Democrats and a surprising number of Republicans are on the side of voting by mail. On the other side are Essmann and Knudsen, plus various party hacks. Their only argument is that if everybody who wants to vote gets a chance to, the Republican might not win.
Upton Sinclair once observed that "it is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." Essmann earns his salary. But this issue is so clear-cut that even he can afford to understand it. He should put politics aside, if only briefly, and let his candidate try to win on his own merits. The alternative is too ugly to watch.
Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the dangers of easy voting at combatblog.net.