Communication breakdown

| November 14, 2002

Trudging through the vague, confusing and occasionally misleading language of the Montana ballot wasn’t easy this election. In fact some ballot initiative summaries were so puzzling, they may have led voters to a breakdown of logic.

For instance, when the voters overwhelmingly adopted the citizen-initiative allowing more tobacco settlement money to be spent on health care and tobacco cessation programs (I-146), it seemed they were showing their allegiance to the process and the power it can wield to change laws that the legislature can’t or won’t deal with.

But voters also chose to adopt C-37 and C-38, the constitutional initiatives that make it more difficult for citizens to place initiatives, like the tobacco prevention measure, on the ballot in the future. If C-37 and C-38 had been in place before this election cycle, their demands may well have made it too difficult for proponents of the tobacco prevention measure—alongside the energy deregulation initiative (I-117) and the buy-back-the-dams initiative (I-145)—to get their issues on the ballot.

“I don’t believe we would have qualified [if the initiatives were in effect] and I don’t think most of them would have qualified,” says I-145 Campaign Coordinator Erik Tombre.

The breakdown in logic may have come in trying to decode the number soup featured on the ballot. All voters really needed to know about C-37 and C-38 was that the signatures required to put an initiative on ballot would have to be gathered in counties, not legislative districts, if the constitutional amendments were adopted. With the passage of the initiatives, organizations hoping to put an initiative on the ballot will need to expend more resources to travel to remote counties looking for, in some cases, only a couple dozen signatures.

“I wonder if there was some confusion about the process,” says MontPIRG executive director David Ponder. “People don’t generally think about how legislative districts are drawn up and they don’t think of their political boundaries in terms of legislative districts but they think about it in terms of their community.”

It’s possible that voters didn’t realize how much the proposed requirements would change the system, how much harder it would be for citizen groups to place initiatives on the ballot, says Ponder.

While C-37 and C-38 compromise citizen power to circumvent their representative democracy, the legislature’s power to put initiatives on the ballot hasn’t changed. In fact, C-37 and C-38, both placed on the ballot by the legislature, didn’t need a single citizen’s signature to overhaul the signature gathering process.

But Ponder and other members of citizen groups aren’t going to let the change stand. Just as Idaho and Utah have challenged the constitutionality of similar initiatives, Ponder and his peers plan to take C-37 and C-38 to court.

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