House Committee approves disputed referendums

The House State Administration Committee

The House State Administration Committee

The House State Administration Committee has voted to move forward two referendum bills which caused a Democratic uproar recently in the Senate.

The two measures each passed the committee on party-line 12 to 7 votes. The first, SB405, close same-day voter registration in the state. The other, SB408, would put in place a top-two primary system. Being referendum bills, if they pass both legislative chambers with a simple majority, they would each be put before a general public vote in 2014. As such, the bills would bypass a potential veto of Democratic Governor Steve Bullock.

Using referendums has become a strategy of Republicans in the legislature the past two sessions. Secretary of State Linda McCulloch’s office says there are still 10 potential referendum bills alive in 2013 Session. Enough so, Senate Democrats attempted to employ a rarely-used parliamentary procedure to kill the bills. When Republican leadership ignored Democratic motions to use that procedure, the minority party rose to their feet, shouted and pounded their desks. The GOP-controlled Senate Rules Committee voted to say Republicans did not do anything wrong in the events, and that the votes taken during the tumult did in fact count.

Much of the testimony and debate in the State Administration Committee reflected earlier debates on standard, non-referendum bills which were very similar. On the idea of removing same-day voter registration, opponents argue it disenfranchises citizens who show up on Election Day unregistered. The bill would move the registration deadline to the Friday before Election Day and supporters call that a reasonable shift in order to shrink wait-times for voters and help over-burden election workers.

Many believe same-day voter registration tends to benefit Democratic candidates and issues as some left-leaning constituencies like college students, the poor, and Native Americans are more likely to not be properly registered when they show up to vote.

The bill to create a top-two primary would change the state’s primary election system to one type of ballot, rather than citizens receiving a Republican and Democratic primary and having to choose one to vote. The top-two candidates in each race would move forward to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. Those in favor say it would free independent-minded Montanans from having to vote for one party in the primaries. Opponents say third-party candidates would get shut out of general elections.

Libertarian candidates have played a ‘spoiler’ role in several recent statewide elections, commonly seen to draw votes away from Republican candidates.

The two referendum bills now move to the House floor for debate.

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