High Court Blocks Primary Referendum from Ballot

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A referendum that would dramatically change Montana’s primary election system cannot be put on the November ballot because the title is too long and confusing, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The title violates a 100-word limit set by the Legislature and “poses a substantial risk of misleading or confusing voters,” the court said in a 5-1 decision.

The referendum would end separate party primaries and replace them with a single ballot. The top two vote-getters would advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

The Legislature voted last year to put the proposal on the 2014 ballot. It was designed to prevent third-party candidates from taking votes from major party candidates in the general election, which has harmed Republican candidates in recent years.

Three labor groups and the Montana Human Rights Network challenged the proposal over the length of the title, which includes more than 100 state statutes that would be amended or repealed, listed by number.

Attorney General Tim Fox argued the statute numbers weren’t words and shouldn’t count against the limit.

The majority opinion said state laws and previous Supreme Court rulings show that numbers should be considered words.

Fox’s spokesman, John Barnes, said lawmakers will have to reconsider the procedures for ballot issues.

“Based on this new guidance from the Montana Supreme Court, the Legislature will need to revisit its rules governing the submission of referenda to voters,” Barnes said in an email to The Associated Press.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Laurie McKinnon said the Legislature has not clearly said numbers should count as words. She also said previous Supreme Court rulings have said the number of any statute being changed must be listed in the title of a referendum.

The lawsuit challenging the referendum also said it violated the state Constitution by addressing more than one subject, that it would eliminate the right of third parties to appear on the general election ballot and that the attorney general’s written explanation of the measure was misleading.

The majority opinion did not address those issues.