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Montana Could Elect Its First Out Statewide Official Tuesday

Bryce Bennett

Bryce Bennett, running for secretary of state, has a passion for voting rights and for representation.

One of the milestones reached in Tuesday's election could well be Montana electing its first out gay statewide official.

Bryce Bennett, a state senator and previously a Montana House member, is the Democratic candidate for secretary of state. He's no stranger to firsts, having been the first out gay man elected to the legislature (two lesbian lawmakers preceded him).

Montana is ready to elect a member of the LGBTQ+ community to a statewide position, he says, noting that the state isn't as conservative as outsiders might think. "Montana is not like the states around us," he says. "We are very much a purple state." Indeed, Montana has one of the U.S. Senate seats that may flip from red to blue, with Democrat Steve Bullock, currently the governor, in a close race with incumbent Republican Steve Daines.

In the secretary of state's race, Bennett has a lot going for him. He's raised more money than his Republican opponent, Christi Jacobsen, and has received the endorsement of several of Montana's largest newspapers, including the Billings Gazette in the state's biggest city, the Montana Standard in Butte, the Missoulian, and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. He is also endorsed by the LGBTQ Victory Fund, Planned Parenthood, and environmental and labor groups.

Duties of the secretary of state's office include registration of businesses, maintenance of state and local government records, and, perhaps most important, overseeing elections. The incumbent secretary of state, Republican Corey Stapleton, is leaving office, having run unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination for Montana's lone seat in the U.S. House. Jacobsen is currently deputy secretary of state.

Stapleton has alleged without evidence that voter fraud is widespread, and he has mishandled funds in the office, according to newspapers endorsing Bennett, and Jacobsen has failed to denounce these statements and actions. Meanwhile, she has called Bennett a "radical socialist." But Bennett, the Billings Gazette wrote, is not only no socialist, he "has a solid record in the Legislature" and "will be a breath of fresh air" as secretary of state. "He has worked with county clerks and recorders, who administer elections, so effectively already that the Montana Association of Clerks and Recorders has given him an award for leadership," the paper added.

Something that influenced Bennett to run is his passion for voting rights. "I've always been focused on trying to make sure our democracy is accessible to all," he says.

One of the legislative accomplishments he touts is the passage of a bill in 2017 that allowed voters to stay on a list for absentee ballots without having to submit paperwork every election. "It's made a huge difference in the lives of voters," he says. In the 2018 election, he says, this assured that 72,000 Montanans received a ballot who would otherwise have been deleted from the list, and has saved time and money for local election administrators. Residents of the sprawling state embraced mail-in voting even before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Montana expanded mail-in voting this year and fought off a lawsuit by Donald Trump over the matter.)

His other priorities as secretary of state, he says, will include fighting the influence of special interests in Montana politics (in the legislature, he helped pass a strict campaign finance law), streamlining the registration processes for businesses, and preserving access to public lands. The secretary of state sits on Montana's Land Board.

Bennett, 35, is a fifth-generation Montanan, having grown up in the town of Hysham, population 400. "When I was growing up, there weren't a lot of people who looked and sounded and felt like I do," he says. If he can be a role model for young LGBTQ+ people, he says, he's happy to do so.

He came out as a senior in high school. He was part of a student group working to build support for diversity, and when he went to a statewide retreat, attendees were asked to state their sexual orientation. That led to a moment that he'd been playing out in his head for years. He finally said the words "I'm gay."

"I looked around the room just waiting for people to gasp," he recalls. Instead, he got smiles and support. When he returned home, he came out to his parents. "They were both incredibly supportive," he says. "I'm very fortunate in that regard."

He's been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in the legislature, having helped pass a bill that finally removed Montana's sodomy law from the books, years after decisions by the state and U.S. Supreme Courts declared it unconstitutional, and fought off attempts to invalidate local nondiscrimination ordinances. Montana still lacks a statewide antidiscrimination law covering LGBTQ+ people, but Bennett has introduced such measures in every session since joining the legislature in 2011.

"I ran for office because I refused to let decisions be made about our lives, our love, and our community without our voices in the room," he says. If he wins the secretary of state's office, he adds, it will send a signal throughout Montana and beyond. "I hope people will see electing an out official in Montana will create ripples across the country," he says.

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