HELENA — 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 Montana ballot.
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 absentee or mail ballots instead of showing up to the polls to cast their ballots. In June, 68 percent of Montanans who voted in the primary did so by absentee balloting.
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.”
Chuck Denowh, who has run initiative campaigns for business groups, including one this year on how cable companies’ property is assessed, said he has always counted on collecting signatures at the polls during primaries as part of his plan. But it’s not one that generated a huge number of signatures, he said.
“I’m not sure I would agree that absentee ballots have hurt the ability to qualify initiatives,” he said. “The factor that I think has made it more difficult is all the regulations that have been put on initiative campaigns.”
However, these changes do serve a good purpose in making sure the signatures are properly gathered, Denowh said.
A 2007 state law requires signature gatherers to complete affidavits to accompany each 25 petition sheets certifying that they gathered the signatures and believe the signatures are genuine.
It also requires signature gatherers to be paid by the hour and not by the signature collected, and forbids bonuses being paid. In addition, all signature gatherers must be Montana residents.
“It’s a hard process, and I think it should be a hard process to go out and change the statutes or the constitution,” Denowh said. “But if you’re looking for true citizen initiatives, be mindful of how we’re regulating things.”
Pearson agreed the rules have made it harder. The 2007 law was passed after courts threw three measures off the 2006 ballot after some fraudulent practices, he said.
“So there was a lot of interest in cleaning up the process,” he said. “But some of that stuff is burdensome. Some of the scrutiny is warranted, and some of it is overreach.”
McCulloch defended the changes as necessary.
Another complicating factor is that many school districts are exclusively using mail ballots for their elections. School elections had been another prime place to get signatures earlier in the spring.
One initiative sponsor is pessimistic about the process.
“The era of the true citizen’s initiative, in my opinion, is dead,” said Helena attorney James Brown, who had a proposal to require special elections to fill vacancies in the U.S. Senate. “A true citizen’s initiative, one backed by one person or a few people, just can’t make it. You just don’t have the resources to get out the signatures, especially on a constitutional one.”
Pearson put it this way: “Your rank-and-file citizens’ group that’s kind of lifting themselves up from their bootstraps, they’re going to be hard-pressed (to qualify initiatives).”
Many people don’t realize the strategy and commitment needed for an initiative, the number of volunteers needed, the length of time it takes for proposals to clear state agencies that review them and the “hostile environment” they will face from opponents, he said.
“Unfortunately, the more money you have, the more you can use it for the process,” Pearson said.
Pearson estimated that one person can gather 12-15 signatures an hour. To get the 24,175 signatures of voters needed to put an initiative on the 2014 ballot, plus a surplus of 30 percent more signatures for backup, probably would take 2,000-3,000 hours of signature gathering, he said.
Jonathan Motl, the state’s political practices commissioner who previously worked on initiative campaigns as an attorney, agreed the process has changed.
“What it shows, which we’ve seen coming for years, is that with the initiative process, it’s necessary now to have money to qualify,” Motl said. “Pure volunteer efforts are not as likely to be successful as they were back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You can still get citizen initiatives on the ballot, but your success rate is going to be higher if you use a professional signature-gathering firm.”
Both Pearson and Denowh run consulting firms that have been hired to work on past ballot measures.
Denowh said it’s still possible for citizens to work on ballot issues without paid consultants and paid signature gatherers, provided “you start really, really early.”
Abbott said if a group doesn’t begin it effort until January or early February, it’s hard to run a volunteer-driven campaign.
“You really need to start early,” she said. “You really need to have it cleared the AG (attorney general review) process by the end of the year, have your financing in place to get an early start.”
Brown said he put in his initiative too late. One problem, he said, is people can’t legally start gathering signatures for an initiative until one year before the next Election Day.
“You’ve got to give people a longer time to collect signatures,” he said.
Brown already has resubmitted for the 2016 ballot his initiative for special elections for Senate vacancies.