Nancy Maxson and Nancy Leifer, Co-Presidents League of Women Voters Missoula 

This November 3 General Election ballot will be big ballot, in part because voters will have the chance to adopt amendments to Montana’s Constitution and enact laws through the “referendum and initiative” process.  These items on the ballot are known as “ballot issues.”

One of the reasons we elect officials is to enact laws on our behalf. We don’t expect every citizen to be an expert on the fine points of regulating insurance, or contracting road construction, or licensing cosmeticians or the thousands of other jobs our public servants do every day. We elect local, state, tribal and national representatives whose work it is to learn the fine points of government, enact the laws and regulations that direct public servants, and allocate tax dollars to fund them.

Sometimes our state legislature approves an amendment to our constitution or passes a law they want the voters (electors) of Montana to approve. The legislature refers that proposed law to the electors  by putting it on the ballot as a “referendum” in a state-wide election. The November 3 election is a state-wide General Election, and this ballot includes two proposed constitutional amendments (C46: to change constitutional amendment initiative signature requirements and C47: to revise initiative signature requirements) and one proposed legislative referendum (LR-130: restricts a county, city, town, consolidated local government, or other local government unit’s authority to regulate the carrying of firearms). The legislature passed and has referred these three referendums to the voters.

Citizens can also adopt laws and amend the constitution through a process called “initiative”. On the November 3 ballot there is one constitutional amendment initiative (BALLOT ISSUE #11 – CI-118) and one initiative (BALLOT ISSUE #14 – I-190), both dealing with legalizing the possession and use of limited amounts of marijuana.

Sponsoring a citizen initiative and getting it on the General Election ballot is not easy. A citizen proposed ballot issue can only be put on the ballot after the language has been submitted to Montana’s Legislative Services Division and the Montana Attorney General conducts a legal review. After the review process is complete, the Secretary of State notifies the sponsor if the language has been approved or rejected.

If the language is approved, the sponsor begins asking voters to sign petitions asking that the citizen initiative be put on the ballot. A total of five percent of the qualified voters in Montana, including five percent in each of at least one half of Montana counties, must sign the petition before an initiative can be submitted for a vote. For a constitutional amendment by initiative, 10 percent of the qualified voters in Montana, including 10 percent of the voters in each of at least one half of Montana counties, must sign the petitions. Requiring that signatures come from at least half of the counties ensures the initiative has broad, state-wide support. The Secretary of State verifies that the signatures on the petitions are registered Montana voters and if the requirements are met, the initiative goes on the ballot.

The complete text for all of the initiatives and referendums on the November 3 ballot are on the Secretary of State’s website (sosmt.gov) at https://sosmt.gov/elections/ballot_issues/2020-2/

Ballot issues can be complicated. To help Montana voters understand these issues better, the Secretary of State publishes a Voter Information Guide with arguments for and against each issue that will be mailed to the household of all active registered voters on October 5. We’ll tell you more about this in an upcoming column.

The League of Women Voters has been registering voters and providing non-partisan voting information for over 100 years. Membership is open to men and women, citizens and non-citizens over the age of 16.  For more information about the Missoula League, go to our website: lwvmissoula.org

Spotlight on Citizenship 

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