Poll: Voters uncertain about ballot initiatives

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BOZEMAN – A new poll of Montana voters conducted jointly by Montana State University political scientists and the Montana Television Network found a high degree of uncertainty among potential voters about three ballot measures in the state’s Nov. 6 election.

The poll’s lead analyst said that large numbers of uncommitted voters usually results in support for the status quo, which could be good news for a renewal of the 6-mill levy to support public higher education but may not be as positive for Montana ballot Initiative 185, which would raise taxes on tobacco products to expand Medicaid in the state, or I-186, which seeks to protect water from acid mine drainage.

David Parker, MSU associate professor of political science, led a team of four MSU political scientists that conducted the poll of Montanans’ voting preferences for the upcoming election.

“Across all three ballot initiatives, there is a high level of ‘I don’t knows,’ ranging around 18-22 percent,” Parker said. “That’s important when it comes to voting for an initiative that will change the law. When voters don’t know at this point, they often will vote for the status quo. The ‘I don’t knows’ often become nos.”

Details of the responses to the three ballot measures follow.

Initiative 185

Parker said spending on I-185 has already eclipsed $25 million, making it one of the most expensive ballot measures in state history. Parker said the $25 million spent on the measure is four times the amount spent on this year’s race for the U.S. House, which he estimates to be in the $6-7 million range. And, it far eclipses the $16 million spent on the 2016 governor’s race, which was the most expensive gubernatorial race in the state’s history.

“The big reason (I-185 is this expensive) is tobacco companies don’t want to lose their market share in the state,” Parker said.

Montanans were fairly evenly divided — 41.4 percent said they will vote yes and 40.8 percent no — on the measure, which would raise taxes on all tobacco products, including vaping products and e-cigarettes, and allocate the funds to state health-related programs. However, Parker said the key is that 17.3 percent of voters said they were uncertain how they will vote. Because many of those uncommitted voters will eventually vote no or will drop off and not vote on a measure they are uncertain about, Parker predicts that I-185 won’t pass.

Parker said one interesting demographic in the initiative is that voters 50 and older said they would not vote for the measure, while younger voters were more likely to vote for I-185. Parker theorizes that reflects smoking patterns in the state: Smoking is more common among older Montanans than younger voters in the state.

Voters identifying as Democrats were 69.4 percent for the measure with 15.5 percent uncertain and 14.1 percent voting no. A majority of GOP voters, 56.2 percent, said they would vote no; 24.4 percent said they would vote yes, and 18.7 percent didn’t know how they would vote. Nearly 45 percent of independent voters said they would approve the measure, while 39 percent of independents said they would vote no with 16 percent left undecided. Female voters were largely in favor of I-185, with 44.8 percent saying they would vote yes, 33.1 percent no, and 21.4 percent undecided. Males disapproved of the measure, with 48.4 percent voting no, 37.5 percent yes, and 13.8 percent undecided.

Initiative 186

A majority of Montanans — 50.6 percent — said they would vote for I-186, as opposed to the 28.6 percent who said they’d vote no. Yet, 19.8 percent of voters said they were undecided how they would vote on the measure, which would require the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to deny a permit for any new hard-rock mines in Montana unless the reclamation plan provides clear and convincing evidence that the mine will not require perpetual treatment of water polluted by acid mine drainage or other contaminants. Parker said he suspects that high degree of uncertainty about the measure means it may not pass.

Democrats were overwhelmingly for the measure, with 75.4 percent saying they would vote for it, 12 percent of Democrats saying they would vote no, and 12.3 percent undecided. Voters identifying as Republican were more divided. Forty-three percent said they would vote no, 31.9 percent yes, and 24 percent undecided. A strong majority – 60.5 percent – of independent voters said they would vote for I-186; 20.4 percent of independents said they would vote no, and 18.2 percent were undecided.

A majority of women – 52.6 percent – said they would vote yes, with 23.4 percent voting no and 22.9 percent of women undecided. Nearly 49 percent of men said they would vote yes, 33.7 percent no, and 16.9 percent uncertain.

6-mill levy

More than half of the voters polled, 53.9 percent, said they planned to vote for LR-128, which affirms the existing 6-mill levy to support Montana’s public colleges and universities. About 22 percent of voters said they would vote no, and another 22.6 percent were undecided. While that is the highest percentage of uncertain voters of any of the initiatives, Parker said he believes that there is a good chance the mill levy will pass.

“With support for the levy between 51.8 and 56 percent, and only 50 percent required for it to pass, I’d think voters will approve the levy on Election Day,” Parker said.

The poll indicated 77.6 percent of Democrats would vote yes for the measure, 5.9 percent would vote no, and 15.4 still undecided. Republicans were more evenly split, with 39.2 percent saying they would vote yes, 30.4 percent no, and 27.9 percent were undecided. In the independent column, 61.5 percent said they would vote yes, 19.1 percent no, 17.9 percent were undecided.

More than half of female voters, 56 percent, said they would vote yes. Only 16.3 percent of females said they would vote no, and 26.3 percent didn’t know how they would vote. Male voters approved of the measure as well, with 51.5 percent saying they would vote for it, 27.2 percent said they would vote no, and 18.7 percent were undecided.

Parker conducted the poll with fellow MSU political scientists Eric D. Raile, Sara Guenther and Elizabeth Shanahan. They mailed 10,400 questionnaires to registered Montana voters in mid-September. About 20 percent of those who received the questionnaire — 2,057 respondents — sent it back by Oct. 6, which is considered a very good response rate, Parker said. He added that the MSU political scientists opted for a mail-in poll because the response rate is historically better than polls conducted by phone.

For more information about the survey results, go to http://helpslab.montana.edu/.

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