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House Supports Bill To Increase Signature Requirements For Voter Initiatives

Montana Rep. Steve Gunderson introduces House Bill 385 during a House floor session March 18, 2021.
Montana Rep. Steve Gunderson introduces House Bill 385 during a House floor session March 18, 2021.

The Montana House Thursday offered support to a pair of bills that would make it harder for citizens to petition for ballot initiatives. The proposals still have to clear major legislative hurdles.

Libby Republican Rep. Steve Gunderson said urban residents have too much power to determine which initiatives make it to the ballot, given the population densities in cities. He said raising the bar would give rural Montanans more say.

“We’re utilizing a system that I believe doesn’t give us that equal voice,” Gunderson says.

House Bill 384 would require 10 % of voters in three-fifths of state legislative districts to sign a petition to get an initiative on the ballot, roughly double the current numbers. It would also require successful ballot initiative petitions to include signatures from at least 10% of statewide voters, instead of 5%.

Another one of Gunderson’s proposals, House Bill 385, would raise the requirements for constitutional amendment initiatives.

Because the bills would amend the state Constitution, they require two-thirds approval from all lawmakers, regardless of chamber, before citizens can vote on them in 2022.

The House gave initial approval to both proposals Thursday with 66-34 nearly party line votes, including one defecting Republican. The bills face another vote in the chamber before moving to the Senate, where several Democrats would need to break ranks for their success.

During a House floor debate, Butte Democratic Rep. Donovan Hawk said raising the initiative thresholds would effectively cut citizens out of the process.

“All this is going to do is just open the doors for well-funded, well-organized special interest groups and an increased number of people with clipboards at the parking lots of your grocery store.” Hawk says.

A recent successful ballot initiative led to recreational marijuana legalization, while recent unsuccessful initiatives would’ve banned trapping on public lands and set more stringent hard rock mining laws.

Kevin Trevellyan is Yellowstone Public Radio's Report for America statehouse reporter.