HELENA – Some unions and other groups have asked the Montana Supreme Court to strike from the 2014 ballot two legislative referendums dealing with elections.
They argue that Attorney General Tim Fox should have rejected both referendums because of legal problems with them. Fox’s staff and the bills’ sponsor, Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, disagreed and said the measures approved by the 2013 Legislature should remain on the 2014 ballot.
Legislative Referendum 126 would end voter registration on Election Day and move the registration deadline back to 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, which is on Tuesday.
The other measure, LR-127, would change Montana’s primary election to what’s known as the “top two” primary system.
Challenging LR-126 are the MEA-MFT, Montana AFL-CIO, Montana Public Employees Association, Montana Human Rights Network, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Montana Women Vote and Western Native Voice.
“LR-126 is clear voter suppression, and it cuts across the board of affected groups – Native Americans, university students, people who have changed addresses and veterans,” said Eric Feaver, president of MEA-MFT, the union that is the lead plaintiff in both challenges.
They contend LR-126 contains a false statement in its title and thus should be removed from the ballot. They argued the measure falsely says it is “ensuring compliance with National Voter Registration Act,” or NVRA.
“Nothing in LR-126 is required in any way by the NVRA,” said the petition by Helena lawyers John Morrison and Frederick Sherwood.
In a brief, Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion disagreed, saying LR-126 “does contain language regarding the NVRA that is accurately summarized in the referendum’s title and addresses a concern raised by legislative staffers.”
Some but not all of these same groups, also are challenging LR-127, which would change Montana’s primary elections to what’s known as a “top two” primary system.
Montanans now vote either the Democratic or Republican primary ballot and discard the other party’s ballot. Both parties’ top vote-getters in each race compete in the November general election, joined by any third-party candidates.
Under LR-127, all candidates for an office from all political parties would appear on the same primary election ballot. The two with the most votes in each race, regardless of party, would advance to the November general election.
“LR-127 ends the two-party system,” Feaver said. “The other side of the coin is you end third parties in Montana.”
In their challenge of LR-127, the unions and other groups said the title of the proposal contains 196 words, which fails to meet the 100-word limit in the law. They also argue that the referendum illegally contains more than one subject.
Bennion, on behalf of Fox, disagreed in a brief, saying, “Petitioners cramped and unwarranted interpretation of (state law) would lead to a deprivation of voters’ constitutional rights to vote on matters offered by the Legislature.”
Olson, the sponsor of the two legislative referendums, defended the bills.
He said he had checked with the attorney general’s office and the chief legislative lawyer about the sufficiency of the legal review and was confident they would be upheld.
“I think we have people voting that aren’t Montana residents with same-day voter registration,” Olson said.
As for LR-127, he said, “I have a hard time with anyone taking office that hasn’t received a majority of the vote.”
The two bills, introduced shortly before the deadline for the Senate to act on them, were highly controversial as they were assigned to a committee that normally doesn’t take up election bills. Democratic senators pounded their desks in vain using a parliamentary tactic known as a “call of the Senate” in an attempt to stall their passage and prevent the Republican majority from voting on them and missing the deadline.
The call of the Senate required all 50 senators to be present, and Sen. Shannon Augare, D-Browning, was missing. Democrats tried to delay action until he returned, after the deadline, but the Republican majority rammed the bills through over Democrats’ protests.