Get an insider’s look into what’s happening in and around the halls of power with expert reporting, analysis and insight from the editors and reporters of Montana Free Press. Sign up to get the free Capitolized newsletter delivered to your inbox every Thursday.

August 31, 2023

You may have seen the clipboard-wielders at your local farmers market or midweek concert series or grocery store parking lot this summer. They wanted to speak with you about something called ranked choice voting. 

But while they were gathering petition signatures, they were not trying to qualify an initiative or candidate for the ballot — the usual goal for this kind of activity (more on that later). They’re volunteers with Ranked Choice Voting Montana, and they’re looking to raise awareness and support for a major shift in state election procedures they say would create a more balanced, representative and responsive government. 

“Our mission is to get out there and talk about ranked choice voting and educate people about it, how it works, how it can improve our elections and help voters,” Eric Buhler, the nonprofit organization’s executive director and only paid staffer, told Capitolized. “It’s a reform that gives more voice to the people.”

Ranked choice voting is an alternative to the system used in Montana and most other states — sometimes called “first-past-the-post voting” — with a relatively simple premise. 

In the predominant (and, in Montana, current) system, a voter can vote for only one candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins (except, with some frequency, in races for the presidency) regardless of whether they receive a majority of the vote. In a ranked choice voting system, a candidate has to carry more than half the electorate to win. Though there are some variations in practice, that outcome is often accomplished by allowing voters to rank a field of candidates in order of preference. If the top candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, they win. If they don’t top 50%, voters who voted for the candidate with the least support will have their votes reallocated to their second-ranked choice. That process continues until some candidate wins a majority. 

(It’s worth distinguishing the practice from runoff elections, in which voters winnow down their choices over two separate elections if no candidate wins outright in the first round. In ranked choice voting — sometimes called an “instant runoff,” though tallying can take weeks — voters rank general election candidates only once, and any necessary reallocations occur within the same election.) 

A successful ballot initiative made Maine the first state to use ranked choice voting for federal elections in 2018, and that year’s race for the state’s second U.S. House district seat provides a neat illustration of the practice: Incumbent GOP Rep. Bruce Poliquin got the most votes in the first round, but didn’t reach a majority. The bottom candidates had their votes reallocated, and Democrat Jared Golden ultimately won with 50.5% of the vote. 

More recently, in 2020, Alaska adopted the practice for all state and federal elections, once again elevating ranked choice voting into the national conversation. 

“The first and primary benefit, that there’s a majority winner, has a natural positive effect in that when legislators know they have a majority mandate, they’re going to better represent the people when they’re in office, because they’re going to have to come back and get elected by a majority,” Buhler said. 

He said other benefits include a diminished risk of vote-splitting, potentially encouraging candidates to run who otherwise wouldn’t because they fear sapping votes from similar candidates. 

Criticisms of ranked choice voting usually focus on the perception that it is more complicated or costly to administer and that it might confuse voters. And while research suggests that ranked choice voting can increase people’s willingness to vote for third-party or independent candidates, it also shows that the practice tends to reward comparatively moderate candidates, especially incumbents — an effect that might rankle those wishing to move the major parties to the left or right.

Conservatives have also taken aim at the process following the election of Democrat Mary Peltola over Republican former governor Sarah Palin in the 2022 race for Alaska’s at-large U.S. House seat, the first race to use ranked choice voting in the state. Even before she officially lost the race, Palin made her opposition to ranked choice voting a central part of her campaign, taking cues from former President Donald Trump, who suggested the practice can be “crooked as hell” at an Anchorage rally. 

For their part, GOP Montana legislators passed a bill in the 2023 session that proactively bans ranked choice voting in the state. Idaho has passed similar legislation. During a House floor debate in March, bill sponsor Rep. Lyn Hellegaard, R-Missoula, said ranked choice voting is too complicated, could delay election results, and would disenfranchise voters who didn’t support any of the final candidates. Others grounded their criticism in their politics, painting ranked choice voting as a left-wing scheme designed to re-elect Democratic Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester. 

Buhler said RCV Montana is working with legislators and the public to grow support for ranked choice voting ahead of the 2025 session, when lawmakers could potentially reverse the ban. 

“Our mission will be to educate over the next 16 months, and hopefully in 2025 we have the people’s support and the organizational support to help legislators feel confident that this is what Montana wants as a solution,” he said. And in a state that is Alaska-ish in character — sprawling, mostly rural with a politically independent streak — he thinks that’s possible. 

For now, there’s no initiative on the table to make Montana a ranked-choice state. But there are proposals for some changes that Buhler said will get part of the way there. 

As Montana Free Press reported last week, a group of former lawmakers and a frequent third-party candidate are pushing a pair of initiatives that would a) replace partisan primaries with open primaries in which the top four candidates advance regardless of party, and b) require a majority vote to win an election. The text of the initiative suggests that it’s up to lawmakers to figure out what happens if a winning candidate hasn’t won a majority of the vote. One possible solution would be ranked choice voting. 

“Primaries are one of the biggest problems that we have to solve,” Buhler said. “That’s the biggest place where partisanship exists.”

RCV Montana is a mostly volunteer-run Missoula-based organization, Buhler said, though the group has connections with some national voting reform organizations like FairVote and Unite America that have provided resources and support. Buhler said his salary is paid through small donations and grants.

—Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Seen On the Trail

State Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, chin-wags with constituents Wednesday at a launch party for her 2024 campaign for Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction. The event attracted a host of Democratic luminaries, including former state Superintendent Nancy Keenan, Montana Democratic Party Executive Director Sheila Hogan, and 2022 and 2024 Western District congressional candidate Monica Tranel. Credit: Alex Sakariassen / Montana Free Press

Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, characterized the open race to replace termed-out Superintendent Elsie Arntzen as a “big fight” for children, for government accountability, and for “simple fairness” at her campaign launch event in Missoula this week.

So far, two Republicans have filed in the race as well: Susie Hedalen, current vice-chair of the Board of Public Education, and Sharyl Allen, Arntzen’s longest-serving deputy superintendent.

Alex Sakariassen

Yellowstone Co. Dems Delete Tweet Critical of Tester 

The Yellowstone County Democrats’ X (i.e., Twitter) account this week posted and subsequently deleted a critical reply to a post by Democratic Montana U.S. Sen. Jon Tester related to legislation he’s co-sponsoring that would prevent the purchase or lease of U.S. agricultural land by entities associated with “foreign adversaries” China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. 

While the legislation would affect several countries, many lawmakers’ public statements about the bill have focused on China — especially after a large high-altitude balloon owned by the Chinese government was spotted floating over Billings earlier this year. The U.S. government has characterized it as a spy balloon; the Chinese government has denied the characterization. 

“As a farmer, I won’t sit back and let foreign adversaries like China disrupt our food supply or undermine our role as the world’s leading economic power. Food security is national security, and preventing our enemies from buying up America’s farmland is a no-brainer,” Tester’s Aug. 24 tweet reads. 

A few days later, the Yellowstone County Democrats account replied: “Parroting this alarmist anti-Asian nonsense isn’t going to win over any GOP-leaning bigots, but it’s definitely going to lose you the respect of decent progressives. Do better.” 

The tweet was deleted the same day. 

Melissa Smith, secretary of the Yellowstone County Democratic Central Committee, said in an email to Capitolized that the county party’s social media accounts are run by a host of volunteers. 

“We have many hands helping with our social media, and as communications committee chair, I strive to respect the many voices within our organization and focus on our goals,” she wrote. “In this particular case, I determined that the tweet in question didn’t fit our organizational voice, so I chose to delete it.”

In a follow-up interview, Smith said the county party has a number of different members with different opinions on all sorts of subjects, but that they’re unified behind a specific goal: “To support and get Democratic candidates elected.” 

To that end, she said the county party would likely never post anything directly critical of Tester or other Democratic candidates on social media. In this instance, Smith said, a volunteer posted the tweet. And while Smith oversees public communications for the central committee, she also has a full-time job and can’t monitor social media all the time, she said. 

Tester is a three-term U.S. senator and Montana’s only statewide-elected Democrat currently in office. He’s running for re-election this cycle, and while all of his races have been close, he’s seen as particularly vulnerable in a year with Donald Trump, who carried Montana by 16 points in Montana, at the top of the ballot. The Republican primary for the seat currently features rookie candidate Tim Sheehy, an ex-Navy SEAL and aerial firefighting entrepreneur, and Clancy businessman Jeremy Mygland. Eastern district Congressman Matt Rosendale is expected to enter the GOP primary as well. 

Tester, as chair of the Senate Appropriation Committee’s influential defense subcommittee, often speaks about American foreign policy in public forums. That’s been especially true following the introduction of the foreign adversary bill. Tester has been especially vocal about China and the Chinese Communist Party, which he has called “the pacing threat facing our country.” 

Foreign governments don’t presently own ag land in the U.S., so the bill focuses on foreign citizens and businesses associated with those countries. Companies associated with China — the U.S.’ top trade partner outside of North America, it’s worth noting — own only 380,000 acres of agricultural land in the U.S., NPR reported earlier this year, though that number has grown over the last decade. Canadian investors own the largest portion of foreign- and privately owned ag land in the country. 

Tester, in that story, questioned whether it’s really known how much agricultural land is owned by Chinese nationals, and suggested that any resident of China who buys U.S. land could be suspect. 

“Any company and any individual living in China that comes and tries to buy land can be controlled by the Chinese Communist Party because they have that kind of control over their people,” Tester told NPR. “In this particular case: guilty until proven innocent — let’s put it that way.”

— Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Speaking of Tester

Two new surveys from pollsters JL Partners asked selections of likely Montana voters and likely Montana conservative voters about three confirmed and likely candidates for U.S. Senate in 2024 — Tester, Rosendale and Sheehy. Long story short: The numbers show greater favorability for Rosendale than for Sheehy, but also a slight lead for both candidates over Tester. See the Semafor story on the poll here and the toplines here.

 Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Background Reading

Proposed ballot initiatives would mean big changes for Montana elections: For more on the proposals to open up Montana’s primaries and require a majoritarian victory, see our story from last week. 

Lining up to lead OPI: The open race for Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction has attracted a slew of candidates.

China owns 380,000 acres of land in the U.S. Here’s where: NPR’s story parsing reality from rhetoric regarding foreign ownership of American agricultural land is worth reading in full.