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Sides Debate Proposed Primary Change In Montana

Election reform advocates said passing two initiatives that would change how primary and general elections are conducted in Montana would reduce extreme political rhetoric and “brutal” primaries — the same afternoon the Montana Republican party disavowed one of the initiatives as “destructive.”

Constitutional Initiative 126 would change Montana primaries to a top-four system, meaning the top four vote-getters regardless of party would advance to the general election. Constitutional Initiative 127 would change the rules for winning a general election from a plurality vote (meaning whoever receives the most votes, wins) to needing a majority vote to win (meaning they need 50 percent +1 vote to take office).

Advocates of Montanans for Election Reform, a bipartisan group with local and statewide leaders, said in a presentation Wednesday, April 3, these initiatives would give electors more choices and push politicians to be more moderate as they would need to attract wide support to get elected.

This message resonated with some in the audience, while others, including Sen. Bruce Gillespie, R-Ethridge, are still on the fence. The group needs to collect more than 60,000 signatures from 40 house districts by June 21 to get on the ballot this fall.

The Montana GOP announced Wednesday the party launched a Rank Choice Voting Task Force, to “combat” ranked-choice voting efforts in Montana, “including stopping Constitutional Initiative 126, or the ‘Top 4 Vote Getter’ initiative.”

Advocates for Election Reform raised $1.3 million in first quarter fundraising this year, largely from two political action committees — Unite America PAC and Article IV — each donating $500,000.

Primaries in Montana are now semi-closed, meaning a voter doesn’t need a party affiliation to vote, but the voter has to choose one party’s ballot. This new system would allow voters to select candidates for office in the primary across party lines on one ballot.

Choteau Mayor, Teton County Republican Central Committee Chairperson and election reform group member Chris Hindoien told those gathered to this day he was unsure if his late grandmother, a devout Democrat, voted for him in his primary election as it would have meant she could not have voted for other candidates she preferred.

Mary Sexton, group member and Democratic former county commissioner, said she wanted to vote for Rep. Ross Fitzgerald, R-Power, in a recent primary election, “and that meant I couldn’t even vote for my Democrats that I might have wanted to vote for in other races.”

She said Montana has a history of ballot-splitting and this change to primary elections would allow for split ballots ahead of the general election.

“It brings us back more to the center, which is a dirty word for some folks on both sides of the aisle,” Sexton said. “This is really about choice and freedom to select those people who are going to be the best representatives, rather than having — whether it’s on the left or the right — those extremes that often the party puts forward, be elected in the primary because not many people vote in the primary.”

Former Republican lawmaker Rob Cook, also with the group, said turnout with primaries is decent in Montana in a national context, with generally about a 35 percent turnout. But that means in a primary election between two parties — splitting that 35 percent in two — you’re targeting less than 10 percent of the electorate to win. With social media tools, Cook said, it’s very easy to speak directly to that audience.

“When you wonder why your representative or your senator doesn’t care about what you think it’s because they don’t have to, they have to care about that 10 percent plus one,” Cook said. “What kind of people always vote? Highly engaged, typically polarized, and voting for an agenda.”

Cook spoke to government dysfunction in Washington, D.C., and asked the room if anyone was happy with how things were running in Congress, which received laughter. He noted how eight Republicans voted to oust California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy as House Speaker (with Montana’s Rep. Matt Rosendale in their ranks).

“How do you govern in that environment?” Cook said. “The answer is, you don’t.”

At one point, an audience member said the Democratic party of today isn’t what it used to be, and Cook responded asking, “Can you say the Republican Party is what it used to be?”

Montana Republican Party Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt recently wrote an op-ed in Lee Newspapers denouncing what he called the “Top 4 scheme” saying it would be “deceptive” to voters and cause confusion around party affiliation. The task force is intended to “educate Montanans on the issue, highlight its true intentions, and stop it.”

Cook clarified in the meeting party affiliation will be listed next to candidates in the primary.

Former Kalispell Republican Rep. Frank Garner told the Daily Montanan the people who have benefited from the system in place aren’t ready for more competition.

“I’ve benefited from this system, won every election that I ran in, and I’m here to tell you that the system needs to be reformed,” he said.

Cook said people of both parties have been skeptical of the initiative as an advantage to their opponent– but said to change the party dynamic in the state they would have to change the makeup of the constituency.

“If you’re a Republican today you might have more choices to vote for, but it doesn’t change that underlying demographic,” he said.

An audience member said the states implementing ranked choice voting are blue states, to which Cook replied, “I’d say Alaska is about as red as you can get.”

Alaska passed a top-four open primary ballot initiative which included ranked choice voting for general elections. This system garnered national attention after Republican and former candidate for vice-president Sarah Palin lost to Democratic candidate Mary Peltola, who became the first Alaska Native to serve in the U.S. House.

There’s currently an effort to put a measure on the ballot to overturn the ranked-choice voting system in Alaska, but a recent lawsuit claims organizers broke rules in submitting signatures, among other complaints, and asked the effort be void from appearing on the general election ballot.

In 2022, Nevada passed a top-five open primary and is bringing it to voters a second time, as required for constitutional initiatives in the state.

The proposed top-four primary system wouldn’t be ranked choice voting exactly because a voter would only pick one candidate from a list that included multiple parties.

However, for the second initiative, CI-127, which requires a majority vote to win in a general election, the Legislature will be tasked with deciding how a winner is selected in the event they don’t win more than 50 percent of the vote.

Montanans for Election Reform said the legislature could chose to hold a run-off election between the top two vote-getters — with a recent example being the Georgia run-off between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. Group members said this would be costly and time consuming.

Or, the group said the general election could be structured like ranked-choice voting, so in the event someone didn’t receive more than 50 percent of the vote, the electorate wouldn’t have to vote again– the second-choice selections would determine the outcome of the race.

However, Montana banned ranked-choice voting in the last legislative session. Sexton said the legislature would have to amend that legislation if they choose to move forward with the rankedchoice voting option for determining a general election winner under CI-127.

If the initiative passes and the legislature doesn’t act, it could lead to court challenges.

As it currently stands, candidates only need to receive a plurality of votes to win, meaning they only need to earn more votes than the other candidates in the race.

Cook said another issue the primary initiative addressed was candidate recruitment, which is harder now with “brutal” primaries.

“They’re not fun. You get called all kinds of names, by groups that may or may not actually exist. And so good people stay away,” Cook said.

City Council member Heather McCartney-Duty in attendance at the meeting said she was excited about the primary initiative, saying she hated the current primary system as she felt it was decided by the parties.

“I would love a chance to pick the best person for the job from wherever they come from,” she said.

Gillespie was still on the fence on whether he would support the initiatives, but said following the meeting he saw there was more value in them than he originally thought. He still thinks there may be confusion amongst voters about who was really affiliated with the party, as Kaltschmidt outlined in his commentary.

The senator said during the presentation he didn’t feel things were as bad in Montana as they are in Washington, D.C., and although some bills were “party line” votes, “there’s an awful lot of things we agree on.”

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