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Montana to Vote on Adding Nonpartisan Top Two Primary to 2014 Ballot

by Lucas Eaves, published

Nonpartisan top two primary Credit: "The Montana State Capitol Building"/

[UPDATE: The Montana Legislature passed Bill SD 408 29-20 meaning that Montanans will vote on the adoption of a nonpartisan top-two primary in 2014. Because its a referendum bill it does not need to be signed by the Governor.]

Montana House of Representative will vote on Friday on a proposed referendum that would create a top two primary system in Montana. If the House votes in favor of the bill, Montanans will have the opportunity to vote on the adoption of a new system in November 2014.

Bill SB 408, sponsored by Republican Senator Alan Olson, proposes to replace the current closed primary system with a nonpartisan top two primary. The language of the bill is the following:

"Top two primary" means the primary election process for partisan public offices, except political party precinct committee offices or elections for a presidential preference primary, to narrow the number of candidates for each office to the two candidates who, irrespective of political party preference, receive the highest number of votes cast in the race."

The bill has received strictly partisan support, Republicans being in favor of it, while Democrats oppose it. The top two primary initiative is seen by some as an attempt by the Republican-controlled legislature to reduce the influence of third party candidates, especially Libertarian candidates, in the elections.

In the 2012 elections, the victory of democratic candidates in two very close races, for the Senate and for the the governorship, has upset Republicans. These defeats have been blamed on the good performance of the Libertarian candidates in these races.

In Montana, because the Libertarian candidates tend to take away votes from Republicans without having the same effect on Democrats, it seems like Republicans would benefit the most if the nonpartisan top two primary was put in place, at least in the short term. However, such partisan rationale for the implementation of the top two primary is considered more the result of Montana's specific political environment rather than the top two primary system itself.

The rationale behind the push for a nonpartisan top two primary has been very different in other states that adopted the system or want to adopt it.

In California, the goal of the proponents of Proposition 14, the nonpartisan top two primary initiative, was to give a greater voice in the democratic process to the state's 3.8 million decline-to-state voters. They also aimed at increasing the interparty and intraparty competition with the new system. Coupled with independent redistricting, this resulted in California having the most competitive elections in the country in 2012.

In Florida, an initiative to create a nonpartisan top two primary system is also currently underway. The purpose of the initiative is to end the disenfranchisement of the 2.8 million non-affiliated or independent voters that are not allowed to vote in the current closed primary system.

Regardless of the rationale, to be successful in 2014, proponents of the nonpartisan top two primary will still have to convince Montanans that the initiative will benefit them. With the current discontent with the two main parties, if the initiative appears to only serve partisan interests, it will be a hard sell.

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