Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) Sandi Ashley said she was taken aback when she moved from Colorado to Montana in 1976 and was asked to pick a primary to vote in, which she saw as a loss to her voting power.

Now, Ashley volunteers to gather signatures for two ballot initiatives that would change how primaries run and how elections are won in Montana, which as of Wednesday has enough signatures to qualify to be on the ballot, according to the group behind the effort, Montanans for Election Reform.

Constitutional Initiative-126 would change Montana primaries to a top-four system, meaning the top four vote-getters regardless of party would advance to the general election.

Constitutional Initiative-127 would change the rules for winning a general election from a plurality vote (meaning whoever receives the most votes, wins) to needing a majority vote to win (meaning they need 50%+1 vote to take office).

Republican Party leadership has come out in opposition to both initiatives, calling them “deceptive,” but those in favor say these measures give electors more choices and push politicians to be more moderate and attract wide support to get elected.

Former Republican legislator and Montanans for Election Reform member Frank Garner said the group was submitting 200,000 total signatures including from every county and legislative district in the state, passing the statutory requirement to get on the ballot with 10 percent of the qualified electors of the state, including at least 10 percent of the qualified electors in each of two-fifths of the legislative districts.

“They are simple, common sense reforms that give Montana voters better choices and more accountable leadership,” Garner said at an event on the steps of the Capitol in Helena.

The group stacked boxes filled with signed petitions behind speakers, and the boxes blew open with a strong gust of wind at the end of the event, but organizers retrieved petitions.

Primaries in Montana are now semi-closed, meaning a voter doesn’t need a party affiliation to vote, but the voter has to choose one party’s ballot. This new system would allow voters to select candidates for office in the primary across party lines on one ballot.

The group says these measures would help reduce extreme political rhetoric and make candidates have to “earn” Montanans’ votes – making it harder for parties to choose winners.

Retired Lt. Col. David Oclander said he answered a call to action in his military service in Afghanistan due to an existential threat to the U.S., and he said the country faces another threat now – the current political division. Oclander is with Veterans for All Voters, a national election reform nonprofit.

“My call to action for all of us is to stand up and serve with your brothers and sisters, our brothers and sisters to your left and right, and defend our nation from division,” Oclander said.

Montana Republican Party Chairman Don “K” Kaltschmidt wrote an op-ed in Lee Newspapers denouncing what he called the “Top 4 scheme,” saying it would be “deceptive” to voters and cause confusion around party affiliation.

The party launched a Rank Choice Voting Task Force in opposition to the constitutional initiatives, intended to “educate Montanans on the issue, highlight its true intentions, and stop it.”

Garner said Wednesday that the people in power don’t want to see the system change.

Montanans for Election Reform said if the initiatives pass, the legislature could choose to hold a run-off election between the top two vote-getters – with a recent example being the Georgia run-off between U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker. But group members said this would be costly and time consuming.

Or the group said the general election could be structured like ranked-choice voting, so in the event someone didn’t receive more than 50% of the vote, the electorate wouldn’t have to vote again – the second-choice selections would determine the outcome of the race.

However, Montana banned ranked-choice voting in the last legislative session, so legislators would have to amend the law if they want to pursue that option.

The Secretary of State’s Office will verify whether the group has the required number of signatures to appear on the ballot. If so, and if the initiative receives a majority support from the electorate, it will be an effective part of the constitution in July of 2025.