Montana Republican Party Wants More Polarization in Legislature, Not Less

On Saturday, the Montana Republican Party’s State Central Committee voted overwhelmingly to join a lawsuit that seeks to close the state’s primary elections. Many Republicans expressed concern that nonmembers were infiltrating the party and influencing elections.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, challenges the constitutionality of open primaries in the state. Under the current system, voters are able to choose which party ballot they want to vote on when they participate in primary elections and are not required to declare party affiliation when they register to vote.

If the state were to close its primaries, voters would be required to declare party affiliation (or lack thereof) when they register to vote. Further, voters not affiliated with a party (a large and growing segment of the voting population) would be completely locked out from participating in an integral stage of the public election process unless they changed their voter registration, creating an unnecessary prerequisite to vote that goes beyond requirements in the U.S. Constitution (and violates individual rights).

 

Read A Legal Analysis of Primary Elections

 

One example given during the state GOP’s meeting to make the case for joining the lawsuit was a vote in the state House of Representatives on Thursday in which some Republicans supported an amendment to House procedural rules introduced by Democrats. The fight over House rules eventually led to a deal between both parties.

“On Thursday we found out on the House floor that 11 of the Republicans, so-called Republicans, can be counted on to vote against every major Republican bill that comes forward,” said State Rep. Matthew Monforton (R-Bozeman), who filed the lawsuit. “We don’t really have a majority in the House.”

That is 11 out of 59 Republicans in a body of 100 lawmakers.

Major parties across the country are now trying to close their primaries as the political landscape in the nation shifts -- a shift that is not going in either party's favor.
Shawn M. Griffiths, IVN Editor-in-Chief
Republican leadership pushed changes to House rules that would have essentially given Speaker Austin Knudsen (R-Culbertson) complete power to decide what bills would be considered for a final floor vote and which bills would die by raising the required vote to override his decision to send a bill to the House Appropriations committee to 60 (even if the bill was supported by a majority of lawmakers).

However, with enough Republican opposition, the rule change didn’t make it out of committee and Republican leaders were looking at Democratic amendments with Republican support. Because there were Republicans who were willing to work with lawmakers across the aisle, leaders from both parties were brought to the negotiation table and a deal was struck on how House rules could be altered.

According to Monforton, this is a problem.

Republicans are losing ground in the state Legislature. They still have a strong majority, but it is not the super majority they had in 2013, when it was 61-39. Some Republicans realize that they will have to appeal to more voters as the political landscape in the state shifts in order to keep their seats, and it likely hasn’t escaped them that voters are fed up with hyper-partisanship in state and federal legislative bodies.

Montana is not an isolated case. Major parties across the country are now trying to close their primaries as the political landscape in the nation continues to shift — a shift that is not going in either party’s favor. The Democratic Party of Hawaii in 2013, for instance, failed to prove in court that open primaries violate the U.S. Constitution. It is not confined to one party or one state.

On the other side of the legal battle, the EndPartisanship.org coalition continues to challenge the closed primary system in New Jersey, arguing that it gives the Republican and Democratic Parties a monopoly over the election process while denying approximately half of the electorate meaningful and equal access to all integral stages in public elections. The lawsuit is currently before the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Read the latest update on the lawsuit here.

At stake in these cases is who has ultimate control over elections — the people or private organizations (i.e. political parties). The Montana Republican Party obviously believes it is the latter.