Thursday, July 18, 2024

Open primaries give voters more control

by Daily Inter Lake
| June 16, 2024 12:00 AM

A pair of constitutional initiatives to restructure Montana’s voting system with an open primary are likely headed for the November ballot.

Supporters of CI-126 and CI-127 last week touted their work to gather more than 200,000 signatures in support of the measures to establish ranked choice voting in state and federal elections. The signature total far exceeds the threshold to have the issues put to a vote, with support coming from more than 40 legislative districts — showing clear interest among voters statewide.

The measures work in tandem. CI-126 would create a top-four open primary system, while CI-127 would require candidates to win a majority of votes in the general election. 

Former Republican lawmaker and retired Kalispell Police Chief Frank Garner is among the initiatives’ prominent backers with Montanans for Election Reform. On Wednesday in Helena, he stood on the front steps of the Capitol building and promoted the ranked-choice system that he believes will cool extremist politics while giving voters more power.

“We know Montanans are fed up with divisive politics, inflammatory rhetoric and an unwillingness to work across the aisle to find solutions to the real challenges facing Montana’s families,” Garner said.

Agreed — it’s time for a change.

Montana’s current primary system rewards candidates who pander to the fringe in order to shore up a party nomination. The extremists on both sides who yell the loudest and cause the most uproar have yanked the wheel from the middle majority who simply want an efficient, effective government.

“When you wonder why your representative or your senator doesn’t care about what you think it’s because they don’t have to, they have to care about that 10% plus one,” former Republican lawmaker Rob Cook said at a Montanans for Election Reform event earlier this spring.

An open primary can fix that. It empowers voters and candidates over political parties with more choices, and forces candidates to take more well-rounded positions in order to attract wider support and move on to the general election.

While Republicans have blasted the ranked-choice idea as a “deceptive” scheme, they should have nothing to fear, so long as they promote candidates with broad appeal. In fact, the Montana GOP could seize this as a golden opportunity to expand its tent even further by pulling in center-left voters who don’t connect with Democrats on key issues like energy production or immigration reform.

In fact, it’s Democrats who might end up being left behind more often than not, as ranked choice does not guarantee their party will have a candidate listed in every race on the general election ballot. Of course, if Democrats can find inclusive messaging on pertinent issues like property taxes or abortion rights, they too might be able to find success in elections they wouldn’t have been competitive in otherwise.

And claims of deception are without merit, as every candidate on the primary ballot can list a party affiliation, helping voters make a more informed choice.

For a state that once proudly wore a politically “purple” badge — where voters refused to be beholden to any party persuasion, red or blue — ranked choice presents a chance to return to those independent roots.