SUSAN GALLAGHER Associated Press Writer HELENA
The state’s ballot-measure process mired in litigation as the November election approached should be revamped by the Legislature, the secretary of state and attorney general said Monday in unveiling a bill for lawmakers to consider. Secretary of State Brad Johnson and Attorney General Mike McGrath said the Senate bill is necessary to simplify the process and reduce the chance of future litigation. Among other things, the bill says that only Montana residents may gather petition signatures to qualify measures for the ballot. The bill also says payment for the gatherers may not be based on the number of signatures they obtain. Claims of fraud in signature gathering were part of the controversy surrounding measures on Montana’s Nov. 7 ballot. There were seven and all were touched by litigation, some more directly than others. The Montana Supreme Court invalidated three of the measures, and any votes cast for them were not counted. Those measures would have capped government spending; made it easier for Montanans to attempt the recall of judges; and allowed property owners to demand government compensation if they believed government action devalued their property. Disputes over measures on the November ballot led to a “logistical and organizational nightmare” during the election cycle, said Johnson, the state’s chief elections official. Printing ballots was a stop-and-start matter, and some voters were left confused by measures that appeared on the ballot but were not to be voted on. “Elections should be decided at the ballot box, not in court,” Johnson said. “If the laws had been clearer, initiatives from all ends of the political spectrum might have had less difficulty getting an up or down vote of the people in the last cycle.” Other provisions of the bill up for consideration after the Legislature convenes Jan. 3 include elimination of so-called abbreviated ballots. A 100-word statement explaining the purpose of each ballot measure appears on petitions and should be on the ballots, as well, McGrath said. Trevis Butcher, Montana campaign coordinator for the three initiatives eventually disqualified, said Monday that the ballot-measure process needs tweaking, but putting a bill before the Legislature probably is unnecessary. Adequate changes likely could be achieved through state rule making, Butcher said. He questioned requiring state residency for signature gatherers and prohibiting per-signature payments. Residency is established easily and the payment rule could be circumvented by paying more to people who collect many signatures than to those collecting relatively few, said Butcher, son of legislator Ed Butcher, Rwinifred. The president of the MEA-MFT union, which helped lead the campaign against the proposed limit on increases in most state spending, welcomed legislation. The ballot-measure process needs an overhaul to help control “fraud and deceit,” Eric Feaver said. Payment per signature becomes an incentive to collect signatures that may not be valid, Feaver said. Signature gathering by nonresidents is a problem because “when they leave, if you have questions as to how they collected signatures, you can’t find them,” he said. Feaver said that “there are people on the left and the right of this (ballot-measure) issue who I think can agree there has to be transparency.” Sponsors of the bill are Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, and Rep. Alan Olson, R-Roundup. The bill is Senate Bill 96.