Preserving free elections is everyone’s business

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Free and fair elections are not partisan issues. Whether it’s imposing poll taxes in the Jim Crow South or rigging voting machines in Richard Daley’s Chicago, whenever public officials use the powers of government to control the ballot box, everyone loses. The bricks and mortar of our democratic republic crumble, and “government by the people” becomes “government by the government.” We cease to be free.

Perhaps the greatest expressions of the democratic process are ballot issues. But as the City of Bozeman recently proved with their massive propaganda campaign to pass the Public Safety Center bond, these kinds of elections also offer the greatest opportunity for publicly-funded corruption and control. In Bozeman’s case, the city co-opted this “direct democracy” process to achieve a predetermined outcome.

When local government places a bond issue on the ballot, the law requires that government to either stay out of the election altogether, or to operate within narrow educational boundaries. It must provide balanced information on the issue, and allow both sides equal access to public resources. When government devotes its almost limitless resources to advocating for one side of the issue, it crushes the democratic process and forces us to compete against our own tax dollars. The voice of the people is drowned out by the surround sound of big government. That is exactly what happened in Bozeman.

To preserve the integrity of the electoral process, state law expressly forbids what the City of Bozeman did, stating in part:

“…a public officer or public employee may not use public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue…”

The Secretary of State’s Voter Information Pamphlet is a good example of what the law allows in the public interest. It’s very thorough but entirely neutral. The text for each statewide ballot issue is provided, along with equal-length arguments, pro and con, to assist citizens in casting an informed vote.

Compare this with the estimated $100,000 the city commission spent on its “Keep Bozeman Safe” bond issue campaign, including over $30,000 to a professional marketing firm for developing a slick logo, branding, talking points, public presentations, extensive advertising and a truckload of promotional materials. A partial list includes t-shirts, buttons, stickers, banners, posters, postcards, rack cards, mailers, bill stuffers, videos, social media and internet advertising, display ads and TV advertising. About the only thing they forgot was sky-writing.

Clearly, the city’s entire effort was designed to persuade, not to educate. It was the essence of advocacy politics, publicly-funded and professionally enhanced to win the election. No rational person would suggest that the city attempted to represent both sides. No one could look at their list of expenses and say this wasn’t a political campaign.

Meanwhile, city commissioners created not one but two registered political advocacy committees, which in turn engaged in wholesale illegal coordination, sharing their tax-funded logo, slogan, branding design and much more. Any private political campaign would be nailed to the wall for a fraction of these abuses.

So I have sued the City of Bozeman, calling for a new, uncorrupted election and judgments against the city for their illegal influence and domination of the electoral process. These issues is far bigger than Bozeman itself. These abuses are happening with school districts, city and county governments all across the state, and this lawsuit should send a message to them all. We are truly on a slippery slope, if we allow government to think it is above the law, and has the right to control its own elections. It must stop.

Roger Koopman served two terms in the State House of Representatives from Gallatin County. He is currently serving his second four-year term on the Montana Public Service Commission, representing Southwest Montana’s District 3.

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