In 1972, 100 Montana citizens gathered together and wrote the state’s new Constitution. Of those 100, only 14 are still with us. This month, each of them can look back 47 years to when Montana voters began changing us from a state known as a corporate colony of the powerful Anaconda Company into a state that vested power in its people, thanks to the Constitution.
Sept. 14, 1971, was the primary election day for delegates to a Constitutional Convention authorized by voters by a 65 percent to 35 percent margin a year earlier — a convention of 100 delegates elected from the same districts as Montana’s House of Representatives.
Competition for delegate seats was strong, perhaps because the Montana Supreme Court had ruled that elected officials, like sitting legislators, could not run. An amazing 515 citizens filed to become delegates — 247 Democrats, 232 Republicans, 32 Independents and four from the New Reform Party. After the September primary, 99 Democrats and 100 Republicans remained to compete in the general election along with the Independents and New Reform candidates.
In the 49-day campaign that ended on Nov. 2, delegate candidates pursued votes and when the dust settled, 58 Democrats, 36 Republicans and six Independents were elected to fill the 100 delegate positions, including 19 women, a remarkable leap forward.
On Jan. 17, 1972, the delegates convened in an open convention with a free exchange of ideas, including ideas submitted by Montana citizens. After 54 working days, the new Constitution was signed and submitted to the people for ratification on June 6.
Over 73 campaign days the proposed Constitution was debated before Montana voters. Opposition was well-financed, mostly by those who had profited from favorable provisions in the 1889 constitution. Many progressive elements and citizens hungry for change supported its ratification. In a tight election, the new Constitution was ratified by a narrow 2,532-vote margin.
Most delegates supported ratification, while some opposed it. Yet the 100 delegates had cemented relationships that have lasted to this day for two reasons: they sat themselves alphabetically, rather than by political party, and they shared power in committee leadership among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.
Following ratification, the delegates formed a Constitutional Convention Society and have met annually with family and friends in celebration of their efforts to help forge a new Montana. The large 45th anniversary gathering in House Chambers last year included a proclamation from Gov. Steve Bullock on behalf of Montanans: “with the passage of time the state Constitution crafted by those 100 Montana citizen/delegates has come to be recognized as the best state Constitution in the nation.”
Now, current generations of Montanans should say “thank you” to those delegates remaining and the families of those who have passed. These 100 delegates were giants in Montana history. Their Constitutional Preamble inspires us still: “We the people of Montana grateful to God for the quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.”
In “Montana: A History of Two Centuries,” Montana historians Mike Malone and Richard Roeder, speaking of the Constitution, wrote: "Montanans seemed to be changing their minds about their state and about themselves .... This attitude expressed itself in a new concern for preserving the environment, a renewed pride in the community, and a new interest in reforming and improving society and government."
A tip of the hat to these delegates is well-deserved.