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Montana Must Change Election Appeal Process

The recent challenges that newspaper publisher Darla Downs encountered when trying to have a county attorney removed from office has brought awareness to the inadequacies of the process.

Downs successfully won the challenge when district judge Katherine Bidegaray ruled in February that Frank Piocos wasn’t an eligible candidate because he wasn’t a resident of Roosevelt County at the time of the election.

Although Downs ultimately achieved success in the matter, the path that she encountered was disturbing. Her goal was simply bringing to light that a government official wasn’t elected legally. A person would think that state government agencies would be receptive to helping a citizen make sure an election was properly done. The opposite, however, was discovered.

Calls to the state’s secretary of state, attorney general’s office and commissioner of political practices created a frustrating case of going around in circles. Each of the offices wanted Downs to call another one. The reception of the calls were polite, but each were sure that their tax-funded office wasn’t the one to help if a person was elected illegally.

The governor’s office replied that the governor doesn’t have the authority to do anything regarding the case.

Reaching out to local legislators also wasn’t very productive. One legislator responded, “After doing a little research, I discovered the recourse is to initiate legal action in the district court. And, as you stated, such action is funded privately. I wish I could prescribe an easier course of action, but I have not found one.”

The research done by that legislator was appreciated, but a solution needs to be found in order to properly serve Montana’s residents.

Downs acted as a private citizen in the process to have Piocos remove from office. She, however, isn’t your typical private citizen. She is a publisher of two newspapers, she has developed professional relationships as contacts and she possesses above average intelligence. When told by one attorney that legal services would cost in the neighborhood of $40,000, Downs made the decision to try the best to seek justice herself. Fortunately, she was able to use her experience as a journalist to succeed in the courtroom.

The situation shows how unfair the system in Montana can be for private citizens. Downs needed to invest a great amount of her own time and some finances in the ordeal. The goal wasn’t for her to profit personally, but rather simply that a tax-funded election be conducted correctly. One has to wonder if there is much of a chance for a normal private citizen to succeed in such a situation.

It’s time for our state leaders to step up and improve the process. Private citizens must be allowed to be heard, especially when election integrity is at stake.

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