A voter fills out a ballot in Victor, Montana, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Credit: John Stember / MTFP

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The Montana attorney general’s office is defending its decision to block a ballot initiative that would create a system of top-four primary elections in Montana, maintaining in a response to a lawsuit brought by initiative backers that its initial determination that the proposal would violate the Montana Constitution’s prohibition on “logrolling” — bundling multiple issues into the same initiative — was correct. 

“In sum, although [the initiative’s] various provisions may be part and parcel of Petitioners’ preferred form of a top-four primary, this does not mean that they are closely related to the creation of a primary system that allows the top-four vote-getters to advance to the general election,” Attorney General Austin Knudsen and two other department lawyers wrote in a brief filed last week. “The inclusion or adoption of the extra provisions at issue are simply separate choices to make, but [the initiative] deprives voters of the ability to make those choices independently.” 

Ballot Initiative 12, proposed by a committee called Montanans for Election Reform Action Fund, would, for most elected offices, replace Montana’s current system of partisan primaries with open primaries in which the top four vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of partisan affiliation. The initiative backers say the concept, recently adopted by voters in Alaska, would create a more responsive and less polarized government. The initiative also includes provisions that, for example, restrict the number of signatures required for candidates to qualify for ballot access and prevent partisan affiliation from being a requisite for ballot access. 

In the assessment of the attorney general’s office, which has the statutory authority to conduct legal reviews of proposed ballot initiatives, those provisions constitute separate decisions for the voters. As such, the AG’s office determined the initiative was legally insufficient because it violates the state Constitution’s separate-vote requirement for ballot initiatives. 

In October, Montanans for Election Reform challenged that finding in court, arguing that each provision in the initiative is essential for the success of the overall project. 


“In short, in proposing BI-12, [Montanans for Election Reform] specifically intends to present the voters with a clear, binary choice: adopt a workable, constitutional top-four primary system for the offices identified in the ballot title, or reject that system,” the lawsuit from the initiative backers reads. “BI-12 intentionally incorporates all elements necessary to create that system, and thus meets both objectives of the separate-vote requirement.”

Whether Montanans for Election Reform will have the opportunity to gather signatures to put the initiative on the ballot is now up to the Montana Supreme Court. 

The group is also promoting a ballot initiative that would require most elections in Montana to be decided by a majority vote. Under the current system, the candidate with the most votes wins, even if they don’t actually sway a majority of the electorate. 

The text of the proposed initiative does not prescribe a method for resolving elections in which no candidate receives a majority vote, deferring the question of whether the state should adopt some version of, say, a run-off election to the Legislature. 

That initiative awaits review by Knudsen’s office. 


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Raised in Arizona, Arren is no stranger to the issues impacting Western states, having a keen interest in the politics of land, transportation and housing. Prior to moving to Montana, Arren was a statehouse reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times and covered agricultural and trade policy for Politico in Washington, D.C. In Montana, he has carved out a niche in shoe-leather heavy muckraking based on public documents and deep sourcing that keeps elected officials uncomfortable and the public better informed.