More Republican Election Meddling
Playing the details for partisan electoral advantage on the thinnest of excuses
The Montana State Senate’s passage of Senate Bill 566 on April 4th is another election modification pushed by national Republican operatives with the goal of regaining national politic power. The bill is a surgical adjustment to Montana’s election law that applies only to the 2024 elections. It is designed to tip the scales against just one office holder. Montana’s U.S. Senator Jon Tester is the last Democrat in Montana to hold an elected office that is subject to a statewide vote, making him a prominent target for national Republicans trying to take back the U.S. Senate. Undoubtedly, the tipping of the scales was meant to slip under the radar. Instead, it has made national news.
The Republican calculation is simple. Senator Tester won his last general election (2018) with 50.3% of the votes cast. In the two previous U.S. Senate general elections, 2012 and 2006, Tester won with a hair less than 50% of the vote. In 2006 and 2012 Tester bested the percentage of the vote gathered by his Republican opponent—but in both those elections the Libertarian candidate was the “spoiler”. Had Libertarian voters voted for the Republican in those general elections, Tester would have lost by a tiny margin.
The “junior” U.S. Senator from Montana, Steve Daines, is the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the group laser-focused on taking back the U.S. Senate in 2024. Although Daines himself has made no public comment on SB566, the New York Times reports that multiple operatives tied to Daines have pressured Montana State legislators to vote in favor of the Montana bill. The optics of singling out one critical race in one year for special treatment even makes some Montana Republicans squeamish, particularly since Montanans are traditionally skeptical of outside interference in Montana’s affairs. In the Montana State Senate seven Republicans joined all the Democrats to vote against the bill—but it passed anyway.
The Montana State Senator who sponsored the original bill, Greg Hertz, claims that he just wants to make sure that Montana sends someone to the U.S. Senate who has the support of the majority of Montana voters. Regardless of stated intent, Mr. Hertz’ bill’s singular focus on the Montana’s U.S. Senate race in only one year makes his sincerity highly suspect.
If Mr. Hertz were actually concerned about elected officials having majority support of the voters, why not a top two primary (like California and Washington State already have) for all state offices? Well, no, we just want to run a “test” he says and then consider broadening the application of a top-two primary in subsequent elections. California and Washington State legislature have current Democratic majorities. Might that make a universal top-two primary a hard sell for a Republican dominated legislature like Montana’s? Non-partisan blanket primaries, of which top-two primary systems are one example, are thought by some to weaken partisan control of candidates. That’s not likely something Montana Republicans want to entertain on a statewide basis—but it’d be OK for one race in one election.
Better still, how about Ranked Choice Voting, like Alaska and Maine, a system that insures majority support? Not so fast. Earlier this year the Montana State House and Senate both voted (HB598) to preemptively prohibit the use of Ranked Choice Voting methods in any election in the state. And guess what? State Senator Greg Hertz voted to prohibit RCV. So much for Mr. Hertz’ sincerity of purpose.
State Senator Hertz is, however, somewhat sensitive to the optics of his bill now that SB566 has attracted critical national attention. His solution? Offer an amendment that would remove the “sunset” provision from the bill, making the top-two primary applicable to all subsequent U.S. Senate races in Montana, basically a fig leaf offered to hide naked intent to surgically meddle with one race in the 2024 elections.
Elsewhere Republicans hide behind bogus claims of protecting “election integrity” to excuse themselves for passing laws that are clearly meant to make it harder for some voters to vote, voters who are deemed likely to vote for Democrats. These laws, for example, restrict the use of mail-in ballots, remove voting places in minority neighborhoods, outlaw ballot drop boxes, and gerrymander voting districts (see REDMAP). People not paying close attention can yawn and declare, “Oh well, that’s just the game of politics” or console themselves with the total fiction that elections are somehow made more secure by these laws instead of making intentionally making it harder for certain voters to vote. Montana’s SB566’s selective tipping of the scales is one more example of Republicans’ anti-democratic meddling. If a top-two primary is good for one election in Montana it should be good for all of them.
Spread the word. It’s time for backlash.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. A top-two primary system, by advancing only the top-two vote getters from the primary election to the subsequent general election, guarantees that the winner of the general election will garner more than half the votes cast. Top-two also offers the possibility that two people of the same party will advance to the general election (as we’ve seen in some eastern Washington races).
P.P.S. The specifics of voting systems are very important—and very tricky. The non-partisan blanket primary (of which top-two is a predominant variation) has a complex history you can read about in Wikipedia at the underlined link. Check out the large section at that link that specifically covers the history of Washington State election systems. Arguably, a non-partisan blanket primary system (like Washington State’s) undermines the authority of political parties in choosing and vetting the candidates that purport to represent the party. In contrast, in a partisan primary system candidates are vetted and put forward to the primary ballot by the party. Then those who declare themselves members of the party elect one of these candidates in the primary election to advance to the general election under the party banner.
Political parties in states with partisan primaries have differing rules for declaring oneself a party member for the purpose of primary election voting. For example, the Idaho Republican Party in our neighboring state has special signup requirements. That requirement combined with a very early primary (in May) gives an edge to the most extreme voters, the ones interested enough to plan ahead and turn up for the election. In much of the non-Boise area of Idaho a Republican advancing to the November general election is almost a shoo-in. As a consequence, Idaho elected Republican officials may advance to office on the basis of only a thin plurality of votes garnered in the Republican closed primary—a recipe for extremist governance. It also generates accusations of RINO! (Republican In Name Only) when interested, but less idealogical, voters sign up as Republican Party members for the purpose of having some voice in elections. It’s complicated.