Direct democracy, a proud tradition in Montana for more than a century, fell flat on its face this year. For the first time since 1992, no initiatives sponsored by citizens, groups or corporations qualified for the November ballot in Montana. Twelve of the 18 proposed ballot issues were cleared for signature-gathering, but none got enough signatures to appear on the November ballot, Secretary of State Linda McCulloch said. One factor is the growing trend of Montanans voting by absentee or mail-in ballots instead of showing up to the polls to cast their votes. In June, 68 percent of Montanans who voted in the primary did so by absentee ballot. As a result, initiative supporters no longer can count on that day to hit up large numbers of voters for signatures.
“We always had that day that would ensure that we had high quality signatures, and we could get the volume and get the distribution around the state,” said C.B. Pearson, a Missoula consultant who has worked on anti-smoking, health care and consumer initiatives for decades. “We can’t do that much anymore. You have to go to public places like grocery stories or whatever, and access is becoming more difficult.”
Kim Abbott of Helena, who ran the initiative effort to expand Medicaid, said, “You could catch up on primary Election Day. That’s not true anymore. Vote-by-mail is a good thing for voter participation, but it just changes the timeline of initiatives.”
McCulloch, the state’s chief election official, said, “If they only depend on the primary polling places, it makes it very difficult. They have to think of other ways to gather signatures.”