Montana Lawmakers to Push Referendums Through

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Republicans in the Montana House are expected to give final approval Wednesday to a pair of election proposals that sparked uproar in the state Senate two weeks ago when Democrats failed in an attempt to block the bills.

Senate Bill 405 aims to put in place a voter registration deadline, requiring voters to register by the Friday before election day.

The other measure, Senate Bill 408, would allow the top-two vote-getters in a primary election to advance to the next round, regardless of their political party.

If the Republican plans pass, they will sidestep Gov. Steve Bullock’s potential veto and appear on the 2014 ballot for voter approval. Both bills are highly contentious, but received the House’s initial OK on Tuesday along party lines.

Republicans say requiring voters to the register the Friday before election day would drive voters to be more responsible and decrease the wait time and long lines at the polls.

But Democrats call the referendum’s title intentionally misleading and say the measure is a strategic effort to suppress voters. After Sen. Bryce Bennett’s amendment to clarify the title failed, the Missoula Democrat remained vehemently against the measure that he said would curtail the constitutional rights of Montana residents.

“In Montana we have a right to vote … and that means everyone gets it, no matter what,” Bennett said.

Democrats said the measure inherently strips minorities, the elderly and single mothers of voting rights, adding that it’s not the place of the Legislature to label people who register and vote on the same day as irresponsible.

Republicans advanced Senate Bill 408 despite Democratic objection that it would encourage a single-party system. The measure would prevent third-party candidates from stealing votes away from major party candidates in the general election, which has harmed Republican candidates in recent elections.

Six other referendums remain alive, including two constitutional amendments that will need a total of 100 votes from the Legislature before appearing on the ballot.

House Bill 619, sponsored by Rep. Wendy Warburton, R-Havre, would add a constitutional amendment that says there’s no constitutional guarantee to abortion. The measure received a majority of votes in the Senate on Tuesday, but it’s unlikely the bill will receive the 47 votes needed in its final vote on Wednesday to pass out of the Legislature.

The only highly-publicized referendum that has bipartisan support is a measure that would redefine the state legislative term limits set by voters in the 1990s. The House and Senate are still trying to hash out differences to House Bill 277 that is designed to limit state legislators’ term limits to a maximum of 16 years in the Legislature.

Other referendums include:

— House Bill 423 that would set statewide limits to sex education in schools. It’s up for a vote in the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee.

— House Bill 496 that would exempt religious organizations from campaign finance reports. It received the approval of the Senate State Administration Committee on Tuesday and is scheduled for an initial vote Wednesday in the Senate.

— House Bill 521 has received the endorsement of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It would require parental consent for minors seeking abortion.

— House Bill 79 which has passed both chambers and would allow for a constitutional amendment to rename the office of the state auditor to the commissioner of securities and insurance.

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