Helping Primary Voters Compare The U.S. Senate and U.S. House Candidates

May 9, 2018

Credit John Adams, The Montana Free Press

Absentee ballots for Montana’s primary election are set to go out in the mail May 11, 2018. Voters are busy people and may not remember the positions of the candidates running in the contested U.S. Senate and U.S. House.

John Adams - founder, editor, and investigative reporter, of The Montana Free Press - has a primer to help.

The award winning investigative reporter, formerly of the Great Falls Tribune, worked with Chuck Johnson, former Statehouse Bureau Chief for Lee Newspapers, on this primary voter guide.

John Adams:  This was something that I used to do pretty regularly during elections back when I worked at the Great Falls Tribune. I think it’s just a useful tool for readers.

A lot of people don’t focus on elections to the extent that those of us who spend our time covering them do. I think a lot of people, in particular in the primary elections, they want to vote, they want to cast their ballot but they don’t necessarily have the time or attention to devote towards learning everything that they can about the candidates.

Maybe they missed the debates, maybe they’re just getting their information on Facebook or through social media so what we wanted to do is create an opportunity for them to have some information about the candidates, in their own words, side by side, all in one place.

We don’t pretend to cover all of the issues here. There are obviously a lot of issues important to Montanans but we picked some issues that we think are relevant to these primary campaigns. And we gave the candidates an opportunity to respond to them. They all had the same restrictions – 50 words or less per answer – so each one had up to 500 words to explain where they were on these issues.

I think when it’s all laid out in one place it really gives voters an opportunity to do a side-by-side comparison of the candidates which I think is a useful tool as they’re considering which bubble to fill in on their absentee ballot or to take it with them to the voter booth.

YPR:  You worked with our colleague Chuck Johnson, formerly of the Lee State Bureau a long time political reporter. So was it between the 2 of you that you came up with these questions that you thought that would cover that broad range?

JA: We did. Chuck and I had coffee a few weeks ago and we talked about what we thought would make for a useful package of primary election coverage to share with newspapers and media outlets throughout the state. And we came up with this idea of a candidate grid.

Chuck and I emailed back and forth with a series of questions and we hammered them out together. We picked questions that we thought would be relevant in those individual primaries. Certainly there are questions that we asked both Democrats and Republicans, but there are questions that are specific to those partisan primaries that we crafted specifically for the Republicans and specifically for the Democrats.   

YPR:  Did you find that the candidates were responsive? That they went ahead and answered your questions and return them within a deadline or did you have to prod them?

JA: Oh there’s always prodding when you’re dealing with campaigns. The candidates are obviously very busy. This is the last month before the elections so they’re getting out there and they’re doing everything they can to raise their name recognition and get out there and reach out to voters so certainly they’re busy and we understand that.

We did have to poke and prod to get them to respond. Some responded more quickly and succinctly than others.

We certainly had candidates who came in at or near the 50 word limit per question and there were candidates who  came in with longer responses and then we really pushed those campaigns and said look we really don’t want to put words in your candidate’s mouth so please pare these down to the 50 words in your words. So we did very little editing, very little hands on once we got the material back.

I do think the candidates appreciate this. I think they seem to appreciate the opportunity to get out their message and say where they stand on these issues. So we didn’t really have any resistance to it just from time to time they were somewhere slower than others in responding.

YPR: any surprises?

JA: Not really. These candidates, they’ve formed their positions and they’ve been talking about them on the stump and they’ve been talking in debates so I didn’t really find anything in these responses that surprised me.

I do think it gives an opportunity, a little bit unique of a debate where by the time you’ve heard all of the candidates respond you may not remember where they stood on the issue. In this format you can really look side-by-side and see where Troy Downing stands on the Affordable Care Act or see where John Heenan stands on the Russia investigation.

You can look at these candidates. See where they stand on a particular issue and compare it to the rest of the candidates in the chart so particularly for those who are undecided but want to vote in their primary I think it’s a really useful tool.