Montana Secretary of State Christi Jacobsen announced her 2024 bid for re-election last week, setting the stage for a campaign battle between the incumbent Republican and newspaper publisher turned Democratic challenger Jesse Mullen.
In a launch video released Friday, Jacobsen is portrayed as a champion of election integrity and business-friendly practices who has “cut the size of government” during her tenure in office.
“In the past term, we’ve achieved significant milestones, from securing our election systems to supporting small businesses,” Jacobsen said in an email release announcing her candidacy. “I am committed to building on this foundation, working tirelessly to uphold the conservative values that make Montana great.”
The secretary of state’s office oversees Montana’s election system, as well as the official records of the state’s executive branch and a range of services for in-state businesses, corporations and nonprofits. Prior to heading the agency, Jacobsen served as deputy secretary of state under her Republican predecessor, Corey Stapleton. Jacobsen’s bid to retain the office quickly drew the support of the Montana Republican Party’s executive board, with chairman Don Kaltschmidt releasing a statement Friday praising her work during her first term.
“Since taking office, Secretary Jacobsen has led the charge when it comes to supporting Montana’s small businesses and upholding the integrity of our elections,” Kaltschmidt wrote.
Mullen spoke to the secretary of state’s electoral and business duties in his Sept. 12 campaign announcement as well, writing that the recent growth of his company — the Mullen Newspaper Company, which now owns 21 papers across the Rocky Mountain West including the Silver State Post, Bitterroot Star and Philipsburg Mail — has “helped me understand the needs and concerns of our citizens and businesses.” Mullen alluded to the secretary’s status as a member of the Montana Land Board in calling for the protection of natural resources, and characterized his campaign’s focus as “building bridges between our rural and urban communities, and recognizing that Montana’s diversity is our strength.”
After taking office in January 2021, Jacobsen was instrumental in advocating and defending a series of Republican-led changes to Montana election law, including the elimination of same-day voter registration and stricter requirements for voter identification at the polls. Jacobsen defended the 2021 laws as critical in safeguarding the security of Montana’s elections, but her office lost a legal challenge in Yellowstone County District Court last year that saw the laws struck down as unconstitutional. An appeal by Jacobsen is pending before the Montana Supreme Court.
Her office is currently defending in federal court a law passed this spring that adds new requirements to the voter registration process that prevent voters from casting ballots in two locations during the same election and applies new criminal penalties to violators. And on the business front, allegations that Jacobsen’s office wrongfully retained more than $100,000 in duplicate filing fees charged to businesses in 2020 triggered a lengthy class action lawsuit. That lawsuit was settled in April via a joint agreement requiring that the secretary of state’s office implement procedures to detect and refund any overcharges without businesses having to request the refunds.
In announcing his own campaign for secretary of state this fall, Mullen — a Democrat, Deer Lodge resident and founder of the Mullen Newspaper Company — criticized “our current election executive” as paying “nothing more than lip service and empty promises” to the issue of fair and open elections. His announcement did not name Jacobsen directly, and positioned Mullen as a candidate dedicated to ballot access and, by virtue of his career in the newspaper industry, a “commitment to transparency and accountability.”
Mullen’s critiques of Jacobsen have become more pointed in subsequent statements and social media interactions. During a recent Reddit AMA, Mullen accused Jacobsen of “total incompetence” in the rollout of Montana’s new election software this year, and of continuing to push voter messaging about the new 2021 election laws even after they were struck down in court.
“It’s too important of a position to learn on the job,” Mullen said in an interview with the Glendive Ranger-Review last week. In a social media post excerpting that quote, Mullen added that after almost three years in office, Jacobsen “still can’t handle the basics.”
Jacobsen has also been criticized by conservatives who continue to view the 2020 presidential election, and election security more generally, with skepticism or outright denial. At a public meeting in Hamilton hosted by the self-styled Montana Election Integrity Project this June, a sign on the stage claimed that “Montana’s entire election infrastructure has been corrupted” — a belief several speakers asserted includes the secretary of state’s office. To date, Jacobsen has declined to engage directly with election skeptics, instead promoting a message that the state’s election system “already sets the standard across the country.”
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