BILLINGS – Delegates to the state Republican Party platform convention will debate a series of resolutions Saturday, including controversial ones seeking to change Republican primary elections.
Senate President Jeff Essmann of Billings was chairman of the Resolutions Committee, which recommended measures for the delegates to consider.
Some party members have advocated that only registered Republicans be allowed to vote in GOP primary elections. They believe some Democrats have been crossing over and voting in Republican primaries to try to influence the outcome.
One resolution calls for adding a plank to the Republican Party platform that addresses elections. It has four provisions.
One calls for allowing only people registered as Republicans to vote in GOP primary elections if a primary process is used.
Montana now has what are called open primary elections. Voters don’t register by party and receive both a Republican and Democratic ballot when they vote. They vote one party’s primary ballot and turn in the other party’s ballot to be discarded.
“The members of the Montana Republican Party have the right to freely associate as guaranteed by the U.S. and Montana constitutions,” the provision says. “Therefore, it is the position of the Montana Republican Party that the voters that select candidates to appear on the general election ballot should be limited to members of the Republican Party who have registered themselves as members of the party if a primary election process is used, or by state or local conventions of the party if a primary election process is not used.”
Matthew Monforton, a Bozeman lawyer and state House candidate, advocated this approach, based on Idaho’s experience.
The Idaho GOP adopted a similar provision and then filed a lawsuit in federal court. The judge ruled in the Republican Party’s favor in 2011, finding that an open primary interferes with its right to freely assemble. The Idaho Legislature passed a law giving the two parties the right to have an open or closed primary. Idaho Republicans closed their primary, while Democrats kept theirs open.
Monforton said if his resolution passes, it could be used as the basis for a similar lawsuit if the Montana GOP chooses to do so.
Essmann said the provision about using party conventions was added because parties in a growing number of states are using conventions to choose their nominees.
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Another provision calls for changing Montana’s primary and general elections so that the winning candidates must be elected by a majority of the people casting votes. This change could be implemented by requiring a runoff election between the two candidates who receive the most votes.
Another option is the “top-two primary.” The names of all candidates running for an office – Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and others – would appear on a single primary ballot. The two candidates receiving the most votes, regardless of party, would advance to the general election.
The Republican-controlled 2013 Legislature passed a referendum to put the top-two primary on the 2014 ballot. However, the Montana Supreme Court struck it from the ballot.
Another provision calls for no longer allowing people to register to vote on Election Day, as has been the case since 2005. A referendum on the November ballot this year would cut off registration at 5 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day, which is on Tuesday.
Essmann said this would enable election officials to focus on their job of administering fair and clean elections on Election Day and reporting election results in a timely manner.
The fourth provision calls for revamping the responsibilities of the state’s commissioner of political practices.
The proposal calls for revising the office so the commissioner serves only as prosecutor, while a multiple-member commission serves as the judge and jury, as a body independent of the executive branch.
“We’re the only state in the nation that puts prosecutorial, judge and juror powers in the same office,” Essmann said.
A separate resolution by delegate Tyler Schott of Billings calls for the party to have an endorsement convention 50-75 days before the primary election. Delegates would vote on endorsements for Republicans running in contested primaries for statewide offices and the Public Service Commission. Those not endorsed would still remain in the primaries.
It would not require a change in law but could be done by the party.
“It might help inform our primary voters,” Essmann said. “From my perspective, it would change the way some of these primary races are organized.”