Montana Legislature sends constitutional amendments regarding initiative petition distribution requirements to voters in 2020

Two proposed constitutional amendments (House Bills 244 and 245), sponsored by Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-1) and given final approval on Wednesday, would not alter currently enforced initiative signature distribution requirements but would amend constitutional language to match the existing requirements. House Bills 244 and 245 passed largely along party lines in the House, with most Republicans in favor and most Democrats against. The bills passed in the Senate by votes of 46-3 and 45-4, respectively.
A distribution requirement is a statutory or constitutional mandate requiring that petitions for a ballot measure or candidate nomination be signed by voters from a certain percentage of different political subdivisions or districts in order for the ballot measure or candidate to qualify for the ballot.
For an initiated constitutional amendment in Montana, proponents must collect signatures equal to 10 percent of the qualified electors in each of two-fifths (40) of the state’s 100 legislative districts.
For an initiated state statute or a veto referendum in Montana, signatures collected must be equal to 5 percent of the qualified electors in each of one-third (34) of the state’s legislative districts.
In 2002, two amendments, C-37 and C-38, attempted to change the basis for the ballot initiative distribution requirement in Montana from legislative districts to counties. However, given population disparities among counties, the amendments were found by a U.S. District Court to be unconstitutional on equal protection grounds in Montana PIRG v. Johnson. Attorney General Mike McGrath subsequently ruled that the federal court’s invalidation of C-37 and C-38 meant that the prior language of the state’s constitution about distribution requirements based on legislative districts for citizen initiatives was considered to be fully back in force. The language from C-37 and C-38 concerning county-based distribution requirements, however, remained in the state constitution.
In the 26 states that feature the powers of initiative, veto referendum, or both, 17 have a distribution requirement, while 9 of them do not. Where there are distribution requirements for initiative petitions, the political jurisdiction on which they are based vary. In seven states, the distribution requirement is spread out over a state’s counties (Arkansas, Massachusetts, Maryland, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, and Wyoming). In five states, it is calculated based on state legislative districts (Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Utah). In the other five states with a distribution requirement, it is based on U.S. congressional districts (Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, and Nevada). Washington, D.C., also has a distribution requirement based on city wards.
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