Lawmakers in the Montana House of Representatives Thursday stymied an attempted revival of legislation that would raise the signature threshold for third-party and independent candidates to make the ballot ahead of the state’s closely watched 2024 U.S. Senate race.
Senate Bill 565, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, has sat dormant on the table of the House State Administration Committee for 10 days, despite an ultimately failed attempt to give it new life earlier this week. That changed Thursday morning, when the committee voted on mostly party lines to bring the bill off the table and sent it to the House.
But the House Thursday evening voted down the bill 39-60 after opponents on the floor criticized the proposal as ill-intended and spuriously conceived.
“It’s a bad bill, it flies in the face of fairness,” said Rep. George Nikolakakos, R-Great Falls.
“Anything we do that governs us as candidates should be done either by legislative referendum or constitutional initiative, because we all have a conflict of interest in this,” said Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, who added that the Legislature should resist major election law changes this late in the session.
Republicans in the Montana Senate Monday revived and endorsed previously stalled legislation that would provide for a top-two primary in the 2024 race for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Jon Tester.
Senate Bill 566, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, is meant to be a “test run” of a new democratic process in…
SB 565 would increase the number of petition signatures required to qualify candidates for the ballot without a party nomination from “5% or more of the total vote cast for the successful candidate for the same office at the last general election” to 5% of the total voter turnout in the most recent election for the office in question. It proposes similar changes to independent and third-party candidacies for the U.S. presidency and for the signatures that third parties are required to gather in order to hold primaries.
Hertz told lawmakers when the bill first moved through committee that the change is necessary to prevent the major parties from “weaponizing” third parties against each other, pointing to the Montana GOP’s bankrolling of Green Party candidates in 2020 and the state Democratic Party’s boosting of Libertarian John Lamb in the 2022 Monica Tranel-Ryan Zinke race as justifications.
”Both parties have used third-party candidates … as a weapon to pull votes from either side,” Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, who carried the bill on the House floor, said Thursday. “They’ve both done it. This bill just makes those thresholds higher, makes it a little harder for the Rs and the Ds to do that.”
The context surrounding the bill has raised some eyebrows. In addition to SB 565, Hertz this session also brought Senate Bill 566, which would create a top-two primary system solely for the state’s upcoming U.S. Senate race, in which Republicans are angling to unseat incumbent Democrat Jon Tester. As initially drafted, the bill would have changed the existing partisan primary system for multiple races and across multiple years, but Hertz modified the bill as requested by lobbyist Chuck Denowh — a former campaign staffer for Montana GOP U.S. Sen. Steve Daines and possible Tester challenger Matt Rosendale — to limit its scope to the 2024 U.S. Senate race.
Collectively, the two Hertz bills would primarily limit the ability of the Libertarian Party — the only third party that regularly qualifies under current law — to make the Montana ballot. Tester has won a number of close races for Senate with Libertarians on the ballot, and political science orthodoxy suggests that Libertarians are more closely aligned with Republican candidates than with Democrats — though Montana Libertarian Party Chair Sid Daoud told Missoula reporter Max Savage Levenson he thinks many Libertarians won’t vote at all if their candidate isn’t on the ballot, or might even vote for a Democrat.
“They’re trying to legislate us out of existence, which is extremely underhanded and we feel attacked,” Daoud told Levenson. “I would say that if this happens, there’s a big chance that Libertarians might vote [for Tester] out of spite.”
Montana’s other U.S. senator, Steve Daines, chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party organ that will spend much of the next two years trying to replace Tester in the Senate. Daines’ former chief of staff, Jason Thielman, is the executive director of the NRSC. Reporting by the New York Times has suggested that the idea for SB 566, at least, came from Daines’ camp.
Lawmakers halted both bills in committee. Subsequent attempts to bring them back in various forms failed. SB 566 is likely to stay on ice, Hertz told Montana Free Press Thursday. But SB 565, which would raise the signature threshold, appeared on the move until it came to an abrupt halt Thursday evening
On Monday, Dooling, the House State Administration Committee chair, moved to bring the bill off the table but abandoned the motion after the committee recessed for closed-door caucus meetings. By Thursday, the votes to move the bill along had materialized, though nobody on the committee explained their support of the legislation during its meeting.
Democrats cried foul, noting the bill’s implications for the 2024 Senate race and connections to the NRSC.
“This bill is nothing but a blatant attempt to influence the next election for the United States Senate in Montana,” Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, told his colleagues on the committee Thursday. “It is a political ploy, it is a power grab, and it’s wrong. I know there’s a lot of pressure on many of you. These bills were tabled in the Senate and came off the table, now they’ve been tabled here twice I think. Please put your courage and what you think is right above the pressure from the national party.”
Despite Stafman’s plea, the committee voted to forward the bill to the full House. But whatever momentum carried it Thursday morning had faded by the evening.
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