Tuesday, October 28, 2008


One week to go! And to highlight the run-up to the November 4 election, members of Missoula's Kiwanis Club heard predictions of what will happen from a pair of prominent political figures.
Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg, who once served in the state Senate, predicted that Barack Obama will win both the popular and electoral vote for President next Tuesday. Van Valkenburg figures Obama will win 320 electoral votes, 50 more than he needs to win.

That Van Valkenburg would pick Obama is no surprise. What was surprising was when Republican Bob Brown, who served two terms as Secretary of State and ran for governor four years ago, agreed. Although he acknowledged McCain is a fighter who could defy odds and pull out a Harry Truman-like victory at the last minute, he said it's unlikely. He expects Obama to win because the country really does want change--from Republicans to Democrats.

Could Obama win Montana? Van Valkenburg thinks so, but only if Ron Paul--who is on the ballot only because Montana's Constitution Party put his name there against his wishes--draws enough votes away from McCain.

(Interestingly, a large majority of Kiwanians raised their hands when asked if they planned to vote for Obama, while only a few expressed similar support for McCain. Yet, when asked who they thought would win the Presidency, the hands vote was fairly evenly split.)

I also was surprised at how similar Brown's and Van Valkenburg's predictions were in other areas. For instance, both men predict that Democrats will extend their slim majorities in both houses of the U.S. Congress. In fact, they believe Democrats could come close to a "magic number" of 60 in the Senate, which would allow them to close debate on any bill with a party-line vote.

Both predict a comfortable victory for governor Brian Schweitzer as he seeks a second term. Both expect Democrats to maintain a majority on the state land board, giving their nods to Steve Bullock as Attorney General and Denise Juneau as Superintendent of Public Instruction. Both men feel Republican Duane Grimes has an edge for State Auditor, but are split on who will win the Secretary of State's race. Van Valkenburg feels Democrat Linda McCulloch will prevail; Brown is confident that Republican incumbent Brad Johnson will earn a second term.

Both men also believe the Montana legislature is ripe for a reversal, with Democrats poised to take over a majority in the House, while Republicans will earn a razor-slim lead in the Senate.

Seven days until we find out.

Monday, October 20, 2008


I've been wanting to share thoughts on the final presidential debate ever since it ended Wednesday evening. But time and work and home and other things being what they are, I'm just now getting around to it.

First of all, now that we've done the Sarah Palin/Tina Fey comparisons to death, does anyone else find John McCain's smiling face more than a little creepy? Especially on a high-definition television? I don't cast a vote based on appearance, but in Wednesday's debate, McCain gave Dick Cheney competition for "most likely to be cast as emperor in a Star Wars movie." In fact, the Obama campaign would be well-advised to stop linking McCain with Bush and start linking him with Cheney, both in terms of looks and policies.

As for the Wednesday debate itself (and all of them, really) I was bugged by what I didn't hear. I wanted McCain to advocate for things that aren't bedrock Republican policy. I wanted to hear him say, essentially, "Damn the Republican Party and damn the status quo, we need to do this for the good of the country." In other words, truly put country first ahead of politics or the individual interests of "Joe the Plumber." references.

But at least McCain went off script with Joe and threw in something I didn't expect. (And apparently neither did Obama, who should have countered by asking specifics of Joe's situation, which we now know is a real-life one.)

Obama seemed stuck on standard campaign messages and cliches about the American people and working hard for them. And when he did venture off the message, I felt he did so poorly.

I wanted him to stop accusing McCain and his supporters of harboring hate and speak to how he intends to bring out the better angels of our nature. I also wanted him to talk about the value of interaction, engagement, conversation and thorough discussion, as opposed to the politics of confrontation.

I wanted him to stop explaining William Ayres and say that it's important to understand all kinds of Americans, not just those who look like us and think like us. I wanted him to speak the way Michael Douglas did in "The American President" about free speech and free association and tolerance of views we might find abhorrent.

I wanted him to respond to Bob Schieffer's question on abortion by talking about the need to heal the divisions in the country on many issues. I wanted him to offer himself as a vehicle for new thinking on difficult issues like race, religious intolerance, morality and, yes, abortion. I wanted the kind of passion I saw in Missoula last spring, combined with knowledge and policy positions that he should have developed since June.

Colin Powell is the latest to call Obama a "transforming figure" for the country. I wish the candidate had lived up to that identity. Meanwhile, McCain did quite a bit to polish his image as the man America's enemies would least like to be in a room with.

Thursday, October 9, 2008


It happened this past Saturday in Helena at the annual Associated Press Broadcasters meeting. Republican Denny Rehberg, Democrat John Driscoll and Libertarian Mike Fellows sat down together for the first time to answer questions about this year's campaign for Rehberg's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. I moderated and a panel of reporters (from the AP, Montana Public Radio and Billings station KTVQ) asked the questions.

You should have been able to see it on television. In fact, the Montana Broadcasters Association went to some pains to arrange for a Butte-based production company to record the event and even deliver it live via satellite to Montana television stations. Ultimately, the satellite feed was cancelled because no station wanted to air the debate live at 10 a.m. Saturday morning. But the debate itself was both interesting and revealing and I looked forward to sharing it with our viewers.

Then yesterday, the bad news arrived. A malfunctioning video recorder had rendered the television program unairable and unwatchable, despite the production company's efforts to find a fix. Disappointing as that news was for me and my group of television stations, it truly is a loss for Montana voters.

Fortunately, you can listen to the debate on the radio. Montana Public Radio of Missoula and Yellowstone Public Radio of Billings were smart enough to make their own audio recordings of the proceedings. Listeners to Missoula-based KUFM and its various translators around western Montana can hear it Friday, Oct. 10 at 1 p.m.

You'll hear Rehberg say that the United States should exit Iraq as quickly as possible. You'll hear Driscoll announce that he'll vote for Rehberg (because of Denny's "No" vote on the financial bailout) but won't endorse him. Driscoll also offers some fascinating details about links between China and Al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. You'll also hear Fellows expound on his party's view of the financial bailout and other issues.

From my view, this was the most civil, on-point and enlightening debate of this political season. It's too bad you won't be able to see it.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


Montana Democratic Party executive director Art Noonan says this week's challenges of voter residency by his Republican counterpart Jacob Eaton represent a direct attempt to intimidate and suppress Democratic and Native American voters. He also told me that his party recently conducted a 56-county survey of election supervisors and concluded that there are no concerns about voter lists, the registration process or anything else regarding Montana elections.

Noonan told me the party is reviewing legal options and might try to halt the challenges of some 6,000 voters in seven counties. However, time is running out since county election officials have until Monday to mail notification letters to affected voters. Noonan also said Democrats might offer to help voters cope with the challenges. In Missoula County, voters who have been challenged must fill out a residency affidavit, get it notarized (which some associates have told me is the most challenging part of the process) and send it back to the county. Then, voters who have changed their residence must re-register in the precinct, county, or state to which they've moved.

Eaton has said the challenges are a direct response to Governor Brian Schweitzer's remarks to an audience of lawyers in Philadelphia that he influenced the outcome of the 2006 U.S. Senate election. The governor has apologized for those remarks, saying they were a joke. Noonan says the GOP simply is using the remarks as an excuse to target voters in Democratic counties and, rather than embarrassing the governor, is embarrassing Secretary of State--and fellow Republican--Brad Johnson. Noonan says since Johnson is the state's top election official, is responsible for the voter registration system now in place, and was responsible for certifying the 2006 vote, the challenges and the rationale for them are slaps in the face.

With Republican Roy Brown now basing a television campaign ad on Schweitzer's Philadelphia remarks, expect this issue to come up the next time the two face off.

By the way, full interviews with Missoula County elections administrator Vickie Zeier, Jacob Eaton and Art Noonan will be posted on the KPAX website later today.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008


Montana Republicans are using the "F-word" more often these days.
Fraud. As in "election fraud."
Get used to it. We're going to hear a lot more of it, perhaps from both parties, all the way to election day and, maybe, beyond. For now, though, the GOP is the side using it.

On Monday, the executive director for Montana's Republican Party, Jake Eaton, dropped more than 3,400 challenges of registered voters to Missoula's elections office. In other words, Eaton is challenging whether 3,400 Missoula County voters are eligible to cast a ballot in November. (To put it in context, Missoula has about 68,000 active registered voters.) He's also filed challenges in Lewis and Clark, Silver Bow, Hill, Glacier, Deer Lodge and Roosevelt Counties, involving some 6,000 voters in all.

What's the issue? Where registered voters live. The state GOP compared U.S. Postal Service "change of address" requests with county voter lists. And compiled lists of registered voters who reported changes of address to the post office without doing so to the county. What Eaton wants to know is whether those people only had their mailing address changed temporarily (think college student or contract worker who leaves home for a given period of time) or whether they truly have moved their residence. If they have moved, they very well may not be eligible to vote in the county where they are currently registered. In Eaton's worst case scenario, voters might be registered in two places and could vote twice. Or they might simply be allowed to vote on a ballot they have no right to get.

Missoula County had the largest list of "discrepancies" of all 56 counties, so Eaton made sure it was among the first to be tested. The result is that the county elections office must generate more than 3,400 voter notification letters (plus residence affidavits and other information) that must be mailed by next Monday. By the way, that's the same day the county will send out more than 12,000 absentee ballots, begin "late registration" and open up the courthouse polling place for in-person absentee voting. In other words, Eaton's challenges could hardly come at a worse time.

Voters who receive letters will have an opportunity to resolve their residency status by filling out the enclosed affidavit, getting it notarized and then returning it. Residents who have moved within the county and haven't filed a change of address can do so and vote for a final time at their former polling place before officially changing precincts. People who acknowledge that have moved out of the county for good will be removed from the county's voter lists and will have to register in their new location. (There are exceptions, notably for people who already have requested an absentee ballot. I won't go into that here.)

It may be that Eaton's challenges actually point out shortcomings in state election and voter registration databases. I sense, however, there's another point to this exercise--to embarrass Gov. Brian Schweitzer and, presumably, rouse public outrage over the governor's much-discussed remarks about monkeying with the 2006 U.S. Senate election. The governor has said he was joking, but the GOP and its gubernatorial nominee, Roy Brown, are not laughing. Eaton told me the challenge project is a response to Schweitzer's remarks and an effort to make sure every voter in the state is registered according to the law. Sooner or later, however, I expect their message to inconvenienced voters and harried election administrators will be "blame it on Brian."

Eaton isn't the only one talking about possible irregularities in the election process. Republican primary also-ran Patty Lovaas continues to claim that fraud in absentee ballots delivered the GOP Senate primary to Bob Kelleher. So far, she has not filed suit to nullify the vote, but she told me she will. (Her main legal effort of late was a pro se effort to get on the November ballot as an independent Senate candidate. The Secretary of State turned her down; federal judge Sam Haddon of Butte agreed on Tuesday and threw out her petition.) Lovaas says she has evidence to prove her claim; whether that evidence is anecdotal or analytical, how extensive it is, and whether it's been interpreted correctly are questions yet to be answered.

Missoula County elections administrator Vickie Zeier also told her elections advisory committee Wednesday that the Obama and McCain presidential campaigns are calling regularly with questions about polling places, election judges and other aspects of the November vote. She expects unprecedented numbers of poll watchers and election attorneys--of both parties--to be closely monitoring polling places on election day.

And what will they be looking for? The "F-word."