DOJ: News Release

Johnson, McGrath: Proposed Legislation Will Simplify Ballot Measure Process

HELENA – Montana Secretary of State Brad Johnson and Attorney General Mike McGrath today announced legislation aimed at clarifying the state’s ballot measure process. They made the announcement at a press conference in the old chambers of the Montana Supreme Court at the capitol.

The proposed legislation – Senate Bill 96 – follows a couple election cycles in which the ballot measure process was marked by litigation and confusion. Indeed, one case related to I-151, a measure raising the state’s minimum wage, is still pending before the Montana Supreme Court, more than a month after the November general election.

“Elections should be decided at the ballot box, not in court,” Johnson said. “If the laws had been clearer, initiatives from all ends of the political spectrum might have had less difficulty getting an up or down vote of the people in the last cycle.”

“The secretary of state and I both believe that voters must have faith in every step of the initiative process,” McGrath said. “We think this bill ensures that.”

Sponsors will be Sen. Carol Williams (D-Missoula) and Rep. Alan Olson (R-Roundup).

The legislation addresses nearly every step of the ballot measure process, from the submission of the text of a proposed measure to the gathering of signatures to the process used to challenge statements. Here are a few highlights:

  • Signature gatherers would have to be Montana residents, and payment per signature would be prohibited.
  • Signature gatherers would no longer be able to swear they “assisted in” gathering signatures and would instead have to swear they “gathered” signatures.
  • Ballots would have to have notice of conflicting ballot measures and “abbreviated” ballots would be eliminated. There is a 100-word statement explaining the purpose of each ballot measure. Although it appears on petitions, it does not appear on the ballots on which Montanans cast their votes.

“The 100-word statement is carefully crafted to reflect the intent of the initiative or referendum, yet voters can’t review it when they go to the polls,” said McGrath. “We think voters should get that opportunity.”

The proposed changes would also ensure that the ballot measure process begins and ends in the secretary of state’s office. Under existing law, the text of a ballot measure must be submitted to the legislative services division. Under the bill proposed by Johnson and McGrath, the text would go to legislative services only after it was submitted to the secretary of state’s office. The legislation would also restructure some of the timelines related to ballot measures.

“Streamlining the process will make it easier to use and understand – the way government ought to be,” Johnson said. “We want there to be no confusion. When people are trying to qualify an initiative, they shouldn’t have to wade through a maze. Under this bill, it starts in our office and it ends in our office.”

Another important provision would give the Montana Supreme Court original jurisdiction to hear challenges to the 100-word statement or determination of legal sufficiency.

“In recent years, challenges were taken up in district courts then almost instantly appealed to the Montana Supreme Court,” McGrath said. “With these changes, challenges will be heard and resolved long before voters go to the polls.”

In the event a court revises the ballot statements, signatures gathered on petitions prior to the review would be void, and a court would be required to make a final determination no later than the deadline to certify the measure for the ballot.

“In too many cases, the resolution of ballot issues has left too many Montanans unsatisfied,” Johnson said. “Some folks were for the initiatives and wanted to see them have a chance for a vote. Others were against, and didn’t like the process by which they qualified.

“This bill is an attempt to make the process more reasonable for everyone.”

The 2007 legislative session begins Wednesday, January 3.

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