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Montana Voters May Be Denied Chance to Decide Fate of Elections

by James Doull, published
Supporters of electoral reform in Montana may have to curb their expectations this November. Legislative Referendum Number 127, which would revise the state’s primary elections, is being fiercely contested. Opponents have filed a lawsuit with the Montana Supreme Court in an attempt to have it removed from the ballot.

The Montana Primary Election Revision Measure, LR-127 for short, is a legislative referendum that would restructure Montana’s state primary elections into a nonpartisan top-two system, similar to those in Washington state and California. The top-two system allows all candidates to appear on the same ballot. The top two vote-getters move on to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

Top-two essentially gives the electorate more control over the process by allowing voters to pick who ends up on the general election ballot.



However, LR-127 has come under fire by many Montanans. A large alliance of petitioners want to take it off the ballot and have filed a lawsuit to have it removed.

The plaintiffs in the case stated 3 main reasons why the measure should be removed:

First, the Title of the measure is too long. Under Montana law, only 100 words may appear in the Title of a ballot measure. LR-127’s Title contains 196 words -- about the amount you’ve read in this article so far. This is because the state included in the title every code section that would be amended by the new law.

The state argues that these code numbers should not count as words. However, the facts don’t appear to be on the state’s side. The petitioners cite multiple sources in their brief which seem to indicate that numbers can count as words. Furthermore, at nearly double the allowed quantity, LR-127’s text is not even “in substantial compliance with the statutory requirements.”

The petitioners next argued that the measure contains more than one subject. A legislative referendum may only include a single subject.

The legal brief declares:

“Its purpose is to manifestly change the election laws in at least two separate and substantial ways: 1) to provide for an open primary election system, and 2) to provide that the top two vote winners—and no other candidates—advance to the general election regardless of party affiliation…By placing these subjects on the ballot under the guise of a single subject, voters will be forced to vote for or against multiple independent propositions that they may not have voted for singly”

Critics also maintain that the top-two primary “essentially eliminates the right of third parties to appear on the general election ballot." Some further assert that the measure is an ulterior objective by the Republican Party to keep Libertarian and other third-party candidates out of the race, in order to reduce vote splitting.

While the petitioners’ claims regarding the referendum’s title length may be sound, the other objections seem more open to interpretation. In addition, the Montana House and State Senate have already approved LR-127, giving the petitioners the burden of proof. The outcome in Montana will be interesting; it has already highlighted voter concerns regarding top-two primaries and may set precedents for state elections to come.

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