Flathead Leaders Rally Around Election Reform Initiatives 

A set of ballot initiatives would create top-four primaries and majority-winner elections in Montana, reshaping the state’s political system. Advocates say the reforms would offer more choice to voters and bridge the growing partisan gap. 

By Denali Sagner
Informational cards about CI-126 and CI-127 at a signature gathering event at Bias Brewing in Downtown Kalispell on March 14, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A coalition of local officials is rallying around two statewide ballot initiatives that seek to reshape Montana’s election system. 

Led by former Kalispell Police Chief and Republican state Rep. Frank Garner, a group of former elected officials gathered at Bias Brewing in downtown Kalispell on Thursday to garner signatures for two initiatives that would create top-four primaries and majority-winner elections in Montana. 

“CI-126 and 127 are simple, common sense reforms that give Montana voters more freedom, more choice, more competition, and more accountable leadership from the people in our government,” Garner told attendees, speaking about the two initiatives. 

Garner was joined on Thursday by Rep. Dave Fern, a Democratic state representative from Whitefish; Sue Corrigan, Kalispell school board member and former teacher; Donna Maddux, former Flathead County superintendent of schools; and Ed Corrigan and Tom Esch, both former Flathead County attorneys. 

The event was organized by Montanans for Election Reform, a coalition of former politicians and activists, including Garner. 

Rep. Frank Garner of Montana HD7 speaks at a signature gathering event for CI-126 and CI-127 at Bias Brewing in Downtown Kalispell on March 14, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The first ballot initiative, CI-126, seeks to create top-four primary elections in Montana in which the four candidates who garner the most votes during the primary move ahead to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. The top-four primary would replace the current system where Republicans and Democrats vote in their respective primaries, sending one top candidate to the general election, and where third party candidates can appear on the ballot only if they meet certain requirements. 

Esch, the former county attorney, said that the current primary system isolates independent voters, a growing constituency in Montana and across the United States. 

According to a 2022 Gallup poll, 49% of Americans saw themselves as politically independent, a reflection of growing dissatisfaction with the country’s two-party system.

Though Montana already has open primaries, meaning that a voter does not need to be registered to a specific political party to vote in its primary, a top-four primary system would allow all voters to choose from an array of candidates, doing away with the partisan primary system entirely. In doing so, advocates for the ballot initiatives said, more voters would feel motivated to participate in primary elections and consider a host of candidates, rather than just ticking an “R” or a “D” on Election Day.  

“The voice of the people is getting buried, it’s being lost,” Sue Corrigan said. “We want the opportunity to vote for the person, not for the party.”

Alaska, a state with an independent political streak similar to Montana’s, instituted a top-four ranked-choice voting system in 2020. 

CI-127, the second ballot initiative, would require that in order to win an election, a candidate must receive the majority of votes, not just a plurality or the largest amount of votes. Currently, politicians in Montana can win an election without garnering 50% of the vote, a common occurrence in races with a popular third-party candidate. 

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester in 2012 won a reelection campaign for Congress with 48.6% of the vote to Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s 44.9% and Libertarian Dan Cox’s 6.6%. Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke in 2022 won his reelection campaign with 49.6% of the vote to Democrat Monica Tranel’s 46.5% and Libertarian John Lamb’s 3.8%. 

“Majority-winner elections ensure some important things,” Garner said. “Winning candidates have to gain broad support and appeal to over half the voters in their district. It encourages consensus building, and it discourages extremism.” 

The former state representative told attendees that the initiative will force politicians out of their partisan silos when campaigning. 

“When running for office, I faced competitive elections seven out of the eight times that I was on the ballot. I went door-to-door to get to know my voters in my district and earn their vote and their respect, and I think it made me a better representative and made me a better leader,” Garner said. 

Informational cards about CI-126 and CI-127 at a signature gathering event at Bias Brewing in Downtown Kalispell on March 14, 2024. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The ballot initiative does not specify how winners will be selected should no candidate receive the majority of votes. Supporters said that this will be up to the Legislature to decide. 

If passed, the initiatives will apply to elections for governor and lieutenant governor, secretary of state, auditor, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, state representative, state senator, U.S. representative, U.S. senator, and other offices. They will not apply to elections for the state’s Public Service Commission, presidential elections, or local and municipal races.

In order to appear on the ballot this fall, the initiatives must garner signatures from 10% of the total number of voters who cast a ballot in the last general election for governor. This amounts to a little more than 60,000 signatures statewide.

Garner told the Beacon that voters across the Flathead Valley have been receptive to the initiatives, and that Montanans for Election Reform has already recruited nearly 50 volunteers in the Flathead alone. 

The former lawmaker said he “felt like this was the most important thing I could be involved in” after his time in the Legislature. 

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