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50 Years: Montana’s 1972 Constitution remembered by delegates

Fifty years ago, in 1972, one-hundred Montana citizens gathered together and wrote the state’s new Constitution. Of those one-hundred giants of Montana history, only twelve are still with us. In 1972, Montanans began changing Montana from a state known at the time as a “corporate colony” of the powerful Anaconda Company into a state that vested much of its power in its people, thanks at least in part to the Constitution.

September 14, 1971 was the primary election day for those citizens who sought to become delegates to a Constitutional Convention, which had been authorized by 65% of voters in the 1970 general election. The convention would have 100 delegates elected from the same multi-member districts as the 1971 Montana House of Representatives.

Competition among citizens for delegate seats was strong, perhaps because the Montana Supreme Court had ruled that no elected officials could be delegates. Filing to become delegates were 515 citizens — 247 Democrats, 232 Republicans, 32 Independents and 4 from the New Reform Party. In the September 1971 primary, 148 Democrats and 132 Republicans were eliminated from the field, leaving 99 Democrats and 100 Republicans to compete in the general election along with the Independents and New Reform candidates.

Delegate candidates campaigned for votes for 49 days before the special general election on November 2, 1971. When the dust settled, 58 Democrats, 36 Republicans and 6 Independents were elected to fill the 100 delegate positions, including 19 women, a remarkable leap forward in 1971, when only 2 of 156 legislators were women.

On January 17, 1972 the delegates convened in an open convention with a free exchange of ideas, including hundreds of ideas submitted by Montana citizens.  After 54 working days the newly drafted Constitution was signed by all 100 delegates and submitted to the people for a ratification vote.

Over 73 days of campaigning, the proposed Constitution was debated before Montana voters. Opposition was well-financed, mostly by those who had profited from favorable provisions in the 1889 Constitution. Citizens hungry for change supported its ratification. On June 6, 1972 the new constitution was ratified by a narrow 2532 vote margin, upheld by a 3-2 Montana Supreme Court decision.

While most delegates supported ratification, some had opposed it. Yet, through all this process, the 100 delegates had cemented relationships that have lasted to this day. Two reasons delegates bonded were their decision to seat themselves alphabetically, rather than by political party, and to share power by spreading leadership of the committees and officers among Democrats, Republicans and Independents.

Following ratification, the delegates formed a Constitutional Convention Society and have since met annually with family and friends in celebration of their collective efforts to help forge a new Montana. Every five years those gatherings were held in Convention Hall in the State Capitol (the House Chambers). This year the 50 year gathering will be in the Convention Hall on June 15-16.

After 50 years, current generations of Montanans should say “thank you” to those remaining delegates and to the families of those who have passed. These 100 delegates, proud Montana citizens all, are giants in Montana history. Their new Constitution, often recognized as the best state Constitution in the nation, began with these remarkable opening words: “We the people of Montana grateful to God for the

quiet beauty of our state, the grandeur of our mountains, the vastness of our rolling plains, and desiring to improve the quality of life, equality of opportunity and to secure the blessings of liberty for this and future generations do ordain and establish this constitution.”

Many Montanans and Montana groups are this year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1972 Constitution. Leading the celebration activities is the Montana Constitutional Convention Celebration Committee. Montana’s four living former Governors serve as Honorary Chairs of the Committee and we are the Executive Committee.

This is the first of a series of “We the People” columns about Montana’s 1972 Constitution offered by the Celebration Committee, providing insights from folks who participated in the creation of the Constitution 50 years ago. We hope you find them interesting and informative.