Conduct to Be Condemned, Not Con-Doaned

by Mary Sheehy Moe

“You can’t make this stuff up,” a House Judiciary committee member commented to me after the committee’s disastrous hearing on SB 305 yesterday.

My response: To borrow from Mark Twain, the truth is stranger than fiction. Because fiction has to make a certain amount of sense.

SB 305 has been carried by Great Falls Senator Steve Fitzpatrick (R) at the request of county officials from all over the state. Fifty-four of Montana’s 56 counties would like the option to conduct an all-mail ballot for the May 25 special election. Their primary reason is that they have no budget for an election of this magnitude, following as it does on the heels of an expensive general election. Other reasons include the difficulty in finding election judges on short notice at this unusual time for an election and the availability of polling sites this late in the game.

SB 305 might have been a sleepy bill had not Republican Party Chairman and Billings Representative Jeff Essman sent out his much-reported “Emergency Chairman’s Report” to the party faithful on the need to kill this bill to suppress the “low-propensity” vote late last month. Since then, the Alibi Ikes have come out of the woodwork to try to put a prettier face on his motivation. Protection against mail ballot voter fraud (undocumented anywhere in Montana) is their Pavlovian bell of choice.

But it wasn’t the issue itself that made yesterday’s hearing on SB 305 a train wreck. It was the conduct of the hearing by House Judiciary Chair, Alan Doane. Where to begin? A laundry list:

  • Despite the media and public interest in the issue, Doane scheduled four bills to be heard that day, three of them equally controversial. He did not adjust the committee schedule to allow for an earlier start or an evening extension to accommodate what would surely be a larger number of citizens wishing to participate.
  • Despite a hearing room and a hallway filled with people wishing to testify on SB 305, he allowed only 20 minutes of testimony per side – ample for the handful of opponents to the bill, but an affront to the 50+ people who had come to speak in support of it. The vast majority of them, 37 by my hasty count, did not get to utter anything more than their names, their affiliations, and where they were from. They came from counties all over the state, often driving between 100 and 400 miles, for that “privilege.”
  • When Rep. Smith-Hill (D) argued, with her usual passion, that the hearing time be adjusted to accommodate the public and to follow the committee’s own rules, even offering to shorten the testimony for her own bill to be heard later in the meetng, Doane denied her request, citing the heavy schedule for the day. Nevertheless, she persisted. He talked over her and around her and held his unreasonable ground.
  • When Rep. Usher (R) stepped in on “a point of personal preference” to shore up his chairman by criticizing Rep. Smith-Hill’s implications about the latter’s motivation, nobody had the temerity to point out that whether the Chairman intended to suppress participation or not, participation was clearly suppressed.
  • When Rep. Waggoner (R) also defended the Chairman’s ruling by noting that the rule Smith-Hill cited also allows the public to submit written testimony, nobody had the temerity to posit that it is the spirit of the rule, not the letter, that is the more important factor. The legislature prides itself on being “the people’s branch.” Hearing from the people should be Job #1.
  • When Minority Vice-Chair Virginia Court (D) requested that the limited testimony be extended to allow citizens who had come from so far to say not just their name, but their affiliation and from whence they came, the Chairman approved it, adding it was the only “reasonable” request he’d heard so far. Great dig, Mr. Chairman.
  • When it was the committee’s turn to ask questions of the participants, the Chairman notified committee members in advance that their questions, too, would be limited, truncating what is arguably the most valuable portion of any hearing, the opportunity for committee members to take advantage of the expertise and the perspectives of the citizens before them.
  • When Rep. Hill-Smith asked to question one of the proponents with considerable expertise on that proponent’s analysis of the Secretary of State’s statements opposing the bill, the Chairman ruled her “off the bill” and denied her the right to seek that answer.
  • When Rep. Usher used his questioning time not to question but to make a heartfelt statement about the patriotism of the Native American opponents, he was not ruled “off the bill,” having honeyed up the Chairman earlier in the hearing.

Need I say more? Yes, I do. This is not the first time Chairman Doane has mistreated members of the public who have come before him. Suppression of participation by the public on controversial bills is becoming de regeur for him. When the LGBTQ nondiscrimation bill came before the committee, he also limited the time for testimony. Moreover, he moved the hearing on the bill till much later in the agenda than posted so that some who came early had to leave before they could testify. It was sad to see these brave people, many with tears in their eyes, be turned away from being heard on this very kind of distancing.

In a blogpost on http://barrettforsd47.blogspot.com, Dick Barrett expressed his concern with Doane’s conduct after a similar hearing on Rep. Tschida’s “Assisted Suicide” bill:

“Faced with a bill of significant social, legal and moral consequence, the committee      chairman, Rep. Alan Doane, would allow only half an hour of testimony – fifteen minutes per side. After that time was up, he cut off testimony from opponents who had traveled across the state to testify. When members of the committee tried to elicit testimony from the opponents, he refused to recognize further committee questions.

I have been in a lot of hearings on a lot of bills, but I have never seen a chairman act as abusively and recklessly as Doane did in the hearing on this bill. His performance was a gross disservice to the public, to his colleagues in the House, and to the duty to govern with intelligence and compassion.”

So, yesterday’s travesty was not the first for the conduct of this committee. It should, however, be the last. I don’t believe Chairman Doane believes he is suppressing comment. I believe his own oft-repeated excuse, that the committee has a lot of “business” to do; the session is short, the bills many, the committee discussions of bills essential.

But there is no more important business for legislators than hearing from affected Montanans. When people travel hundreds of miles over iffy roads just to read off the looseleaf paper they ripped out of their kid’s notebook in the hope that their testimony would change minds and hearts, heaven and earth should be moved to ensure that they are heard. More importantly, what the public tells you really does move minds and hearts sometimes. To imply otherwise, that it’s all a repetitive bore, that all conclusions have been made in advance, makes cynicism viral.

Limiting committee questions is equally unwise. Even in the short period allowed for questioning on SB 305, important concerns were raised. Although I support SB 305, on the basis of his testimony and particularly his answers to committee questions, I am very concerned about the Secretary of State’s ability to assume the task that may be before him. His lack of knowledge of the most rudimentary procedures for any election, along with his evident panic about the curveball this particular bill throws at him, is understandable, but regrettable. It must be factored into the decision on SB 305. That’s why hearing the answer to Rep. Hill-Smith’s question might have been very illuminating.

Yes, Chairman Doane, it’s commendable if the trains run on time. But the whole point of the train is not the train itself, but the cargo. If what and whom you are transporting are all shaken out along the rails by the time the train arrives at the station, you have the foolish efficiency of despotism. You can do better than this.

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20 Comments on "Conduct to Be Condemned, Not Con-Doaned"

  1. Mary, from his perch inside the Pearly Gates, Joseph Welch is smiling down upon you and softly saying, “You have decency.”

  2. I was told by a legislator who supports the bill that it had been sent to a “kill committee” that the Speaker of the House was seen as having control over to make sure the bill did not pass. Mustn’t have voters participating in elections, you know.

  3. I would rather be defeated in a hight turnout election, than win in a low turnout election.”
    That very meaningful sentence, is from Representative Geraldine Custer, a former Election Administrator. Apparently she is one of new cycle of Election Officials and County Clerks working to do what they can to be voter friendly while encouraging people to vote. She Represents HD 39, of Forsyth, Montana. She is a Republican.
    I’m old and was used to the old ways to the Polling Place. Did not want to break the routine.
    Then came malady and had to request Absentee Ballot so I could be Polled from home.
    Then came surprise after surprise.
    I got much, much more intersted in my Ballot.
    I’m embarassed to admit it, but in past I kinda cheated and ignored some of the Offices being Voted on. Just skimmed information on some Offices.
    No more of that! I post my Ballots on the refrigerator door. Hang them on a magnet clip. Take down again and again. Leave little sticky dots by names I want to Vote for.

    • This is why so many Montanans love voting by mail and also why we should encourage it! Maybe when 85‰ of Montanans vote thus way, our Republican friends will have to let go of their love of polling places….. At the moment, it is their desire to play games with this little bill, and their (misguided and outrageous) belief that a high voter turnout will mean they will lose. Voter suppression is something anyone with a brain can see through.

  4. I was there. I was surrounded by County Commissioners, County Clerks, Election Administrators and officials from all over the state. We were there, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents with one goal in mind- to manage county money to the advantage of every county resident. This hearing was affront to every Montanan, the sun did not shine in that committee that day and every Montanan with a phone should call their rep and ask for fiscal responsibility from them, call em!

  5. Chairman Doane: recipient of “the works” from out of state oligarchs in 2010. A “representative” leading a kill committee to stifle democracy and do the work of Greg Gianforte (a longtime campaign contributor). Not only was that hearing an affront to Montana, I am sure the in-the-bag vote will be equally repressive. Party ahead of state.

  6. I, too, was there. Like a lot of Montanans, getting up early to make a long drive at my own expense to participate in the democratic process of law-making. I had carefully crafted my statement to inform the committee what I thought were salient elements of my position. When I saw that so many people wanted to testify, I further edited my printed statement to essential elements in the hope that I would be able to testify before I had to return home to a previously scheduled meeting. When Committee Chairman Doane gaveled down a senior citizen on a fixed income from Helena who was testifying about her concern with the bill’s impact on her property tax bill, I was stunned. When he cut her mic and ordered the Sargent-at-arms to remove her from the hearing room, I was furious. Then he ordered everyone out. Not all of us went, though, and I got to watch what raw power uninformed by wisdom looks like. To the citizens of Bloomington: next time there is an election, I hope you send a better citizen than Mr. Doane to represent you. Unwise, inept, incompetent or evil, he is not your best.
    I was able to state my name and community like everyone after that in the 10 seconds we were each allotted to participate in the committee’s “hearing.” And, I submitted an unedited copy of my statement to the committee.

    • Holly K. Michels tells the story on the front page of, and on 24 column inches the inside of, the Missoulian.
      http://missoulian.com/news/state-and-regional/montana-legislature/hearing-on-vote-by-mail-election-gets-rowdy-room-has/article_2d142712-a004-5464-8d62-76b75a96fbb9.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=email&utm_campaign=user-share
      Go there and read the following:
      Ravalli County Clerk and Recorder [Republican] Regina Plettenberg said she was disappointed in the way the hearing was handled.
      “It was crazy,” Plettenberg said. “It was not a well-run meeting.”
      Plettenberg said nearly 150 people turned out to testify at the meeting. Nearly all were proponents of the bill that would allow a mail ballot.
      “I think there were only eight or 10 opponents,” she said. “There were a lot of people there who were just [there as]taxpayers. I really wasn’t expecting that. It had overwhelming support, but they kind of stopped proponents from even going into the hearing.”
      Plettenberg, who is president of the Montana Association of Clerk and Recorders, said Ravalli County commissioners and the local Republican Central Committee voiced support for the mail ballot.
      “It’s the money that it will save that has people’s support,” she said. “This hearing turned out to be contentious from the start. I was very disappointed in the way it was handled.”

      What’s the bottom line imo?
      The MT GOP wants MT Counties to expend $500,000.00 so Greg Gianforte will maybe get 5,000 more Votes!
      Any MT or USA legal precedent that a USA County must assume Election costs of a Special Election for Congress???

      • The US Constitution and Federal statute leave elections in the State’s hands. The State leaves it in the Counties’ hands with the notion that a County can keep better track of records, organize polling places and personnel, etc.. I think everyone gets that. For a special election like this, I don’t believe there is any reason why the State Legislature would be prevented from appropriating money to cover these costs for Montana’s beleaguered Counties, but it is clear no one in the majority party of the Legislature, or the opponents of the bill, seriously pushed that idea. I think that is one reason why support for the mail-in ballot option was so strong and bi-partisan across the state.

        • Old Line Democrat | March 24, 2017 2:33 PM at 2:33 PM |

          That is the Repubs problem. The mail ballot solution was just too simple and easy. With all their carping about the budget how could they pony up the needed cash to find the election?
          They have consistently over the years pushed cost back on the counties with tax cuts for the rich and corporations while leaving expenses intact.
          Just a great example of trying to rig the system for themselves because their policies and philosophy don’t pass the smell tests. It’s right there with Voter suppression, gerrymandering and the rest of it. Truly disgusting.

  7. Anyone know what the Doane family farm makes in government payments?

    • About $15k over 20 years with most of that in disaster subsidies. Doesn’t seem like he’s benefitting that much from the program.

  8. SHAME ON DOANE, now the Number One ‘Toxic Clown’ of this session, and a buffoon who can’t count and manage bill agenda and he’s profoundly ignorant not to grasp the magnitude of positive support for this bill and only allow TWENTY minutes? SHAME ON YOU DOANE!

  9. What they are really afraid of is voters realizing how much easier vote-by-mail is and enough start talking about Oregon’s experience with mail voting and automatic registration on turning 18 …next thing you know voter participation is 85%! BOO! Real democracy could break out.

  10. People from Great Falls in elected positions must have all gone to the same School of Politics. Overfield vs the City of Great Falls was about this same kind of treatment

  11. I watched the testimony and was amazed at Doane’s rudeness to all who support this bill which has now become a political football. There was so much wrong with Stapleton’s testimony that it made people who actually know about voting procedures heads’ spin! Once again election administrators will have to work doubly hard to dispell, for example, that fraud, real, election-changing fraud – – exists, that dead people are voting in droves, that election offices just send a bunch of ballots out willy-nilly to everyone and anybody…. On and on, and THIS from the Chief Elections Officer for the state of Montana!! We all understand the “learning curve” of a new position, but, if you’re going to testify at the legislator, you might want to have facts. Stapleton and his new right hand deputy (lawyer) were an embarrassment, not because they didn’t know the process and the answers , but because they pretended to. There were more than a few people in that audience who they could have differed to. Stapleton insulted every election office in the state, worried that Montana would become a “laughing stock” if mail balloting is allowed. He and his deputy generally always vote by mail, hundreds of thousands of Montanans do. He asserted that fewer “eyes”–if polling place judges are taken out of the mix– would supposedly mean more mistakes, more fraud and chicanery! I suspect the opposite, in fact. A streamlined, transparent, timely, less expensive method such as mailing ballots is about as accurate as you can get. Finally, I had to laugh at the R’s new love for our Native population. First, counties may opt out of mail balloting! Second, the R’s, just days before, put forth a bill that would make it MORE difficult for people to pick up and deliver ballots FOR Voters. Again, these EVIL-DOERS would undoubtedly throw these ballots away! This is all such CRAP.

  12. I was present for the hearing on SB305 while the Secretary of State, who personally voted by mail, railed about the hazards of mail ballots yet didn’t have the presence of mind to take the lead from Montana’s clerk and recorders about why and how to run this special election by mail as allowed by SB 305.
    Meanwhile the republican chairman of the committee ignored input from the majority of republican and or democrat commissioners around the state about the effectiveness and openness of mail in ballot elections. This treatment by the republican party claiming local control is best control. If I felt alone, these county officials had to feel naked, alone and unrepresented by the majority members of the judiciary committee.The republican members didn’t have the wisdom to fully consult and consider the advise of the state’s clerk and recorders detailing the mail in ballot process. Only after the public chatted “ask the clerks” did members of this committee ask for a clarification from our own Regina Plettenberg, Clerk and Recorder regarding the mail in election process. In addition the chairman disallowed a former republican legislator and present commissioner of Lewis & Clark county from answering questions about the mail in ballots of SB 305. The majority republican members of this committee should be ashamed of their undocumented claims against using this one time special election mail in ballot process, their lack for respect for bipartisan support for SB305 from 54 out of 56 counties , and their inability to set aside their party politics to support SB305 for the common good of Montana.

    • Old Line Democrat | March 25, 2017 11:24 AM at 11:24 AM |

      They can’t get away from the Koch brothers/ ALEC playbook because they are financially beholdimg to them and essentially have been brainwashed on these lies being true. Luckily most Montanans are able to see through this now that the Repubs have been forced to take a stand that is opposite of their alleged fiscal conservatism.

  13. Mary- Thanks so much for weighing in from your Grandma perch, which, on balance, is so much more important right now. But yes, these folks are nuts. And they need toe called out on their nuttiness. The most people voting in every election should be a common goal for all of us. And maybe after all these overt shenanigans, it will be. Feeling weary, Kate

  14. like you, mary, I once sat on legislative committees. the high point of my brief legislative career was listening to the passionate voices of montana citizens who came from all parts of the state to testify in committees. I remember hearing people who had left home at 4 in the morning to make it to the hearings, some in wheelchairs, and some who were terrified of speaking in public; but did so because they had strong beliefs about the bill before the committee. I also remember chairpersons from both parties extending hearings for hours to accommodate as many people as possible. to do less is indefensible.

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