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Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, sponsored the two referendums that will ask Montana voters to make major changes in the way they elect their leaders. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk/Community News Service.)

Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, sponsored the two referendums that will ask Montana voters to make major changes in the way they elect their leaders. (Photo by Amy R. Sisk/Community News Service.)

By Amy R. Sisk
Community News Service
University of Montana School of Journalism

HELENA – Come 2014, it’s up to voters to decide the fate of Montana’s primary election system and late voter registration date.

The Montana House and Senate cleared two referendums last week that could change the state’s voting laws. The measures passed largely along party lines, with Republicans voting in favor.

Senate Bills 408 and 405 are the same proposals that led Senate Democrats to pound on their desks and shout at the Republican Senate president earlier this month as they sought to halt legislation’s passage.

The first of those measures, SB 408, would establish a “top-two” primary in Montana elections. Under such a system, voters would not have to choose which party’s primary ballot to fill out; rather, they would receive a single ballot and could vote for candidates from any party. The two people receiving the most votes – regardless of party affiliation – would advance to the general election.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Alan Olson, R-Roundup, said his proposal ensures that the winning candidate receives most of a district’s overall vote.

“I won my seat with 42 percent of the vote,” he told the House State Administration Committee. “So that means that 58 percent of the people who voted didn’t vote for me. I kind of wonder sometimes if that’s fair.”

In a similar sentiment, Jeff Laszloffy of Laurel, a former state legislator and anti-abortion activist, stressed that elected officials must reflect the people they represent.

“We cannot have a minority viewpoint represented as a majority viewpoint in the Legislature,” he said.

While some people praise the top-two system, others see cause for concern, especially in races with a large number of candidates from one party.

Pam Walzer, a polling place manager from Missoula, described a situation where the two Democratic candidates could advance to the general election because Republican voters split their votes among the four Republicans running. The current system, by contrast, allows one Republican and one Democrat to face off in the general election.

“Instead of people being able to vote for their party preference, the party will determine who is the one best candidate to move forward,” she said. “They won’t be able to risk having a large primary.”

Others debated the political undertones of the bill. Democrats said the proposal would kill third parties, whose candidates are unlikely to place among the top two.

Specifically, they said it would diminish the Libertarian Party’s influence. People familiar with Montana’s 2012 U.S. Senate race credit Democratic Sen. Jon Tester’s victory over former Republican Congressman Denny Rehberg in part to the Libertarian vote.

University of Montana political science professor James Lopach said Tester would have lost the race had Democratic strategists not turned the Libertarian vote away from Rehberg and to Libertarian Party candidate Dan Cox.

Partisan motives aside, Lopach said the new system could ease deadlock in Helena by encouraging more moderate candidates to run for office.

He explained that under the new system, the size of the electorate would double because people would no longer have to choose either a straight Democratic or Republican ticket.

“You know that if you want to get elected, you can’t just direct your message to the left wing or the right wing of the party,” he said. “You have to direct it to the middle.”

If enacted, Montana would become the second state behind Washington to hold top-two primaries.

Lopach said it’s likely the new system would be challenged in court, although he noted the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Washington’s law in 2008. The court refused to consider an appeal in October 2012.

Likewise, he said SB 405 could face litigation. If voters approve the measure in 2014, they could no longer register to vote on the same day as the election. The last possible day to register would be the Friday before Election Day.

Republicans argue that eliminating same-day voter registration would ease the burden on election workers and voters who wait in long lines at polling places.

Olson, the sponsor of SB 405, said voters should take it upon themselves to register before the election and not wait until the last minute.

“The people of Montana do have the right to show up and vote, but with that vote comes responsibility,” he said.

Democrats argued the bill would disenfranchise voters and leave zero room to correct registration errors.

“Anytime we’re making it more difficult for Montanans to vote, it’s a sad day in Montana,” Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock told reporters last week. “We should be doing everything we can to make sure that every Montanan can vote – not doing everything we can to prevent them from voting.”

Since same-day voter registration went into effect in 2006, more than 28,000 people in Montana have registered on Election Day.

A separate bill to end same-day voter registration awaits the governor’s signature. If the governor vetoes it, SB 405 will go to the voters’ approval in 2014.

Reporter Amy Sisk can be reached at amy.sisk@umontana.edu. Follow @amyrsisk on Twitter for the latest from the Capitol.

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