Analysis: Clock Runs Out for Healthy Montana Initiative

The Healthy Montana Initiative announced to volunteers and supporters across the state that it will not qualify I-170 for the November ballot, but Montana advocates will continue the fight to provide health care for low income Montanans.

Personally I wonder if it is even possible to qualify an initiative in a non-presidential election year any more–especially because the percentage of Montanans who vote by mail continues to skyrocket. High mail vote numbers are usually a good thing for democracy because it’s a convenient way for many people to vote, but it makes it difficult to collect signatures. That’s because in a true citizens initiative driven by volunteers, the bulk of the signatures gathered come from standing outside polling locations on primary Election Day.

UPDATE: The best way to see how turnout and mail ballots has changed in recent years is to go look at the striking graphics up on James Conner’s Flathead Memo.  This chart tells the story best.

GOP Attorney General Tim Fox was another big part of the reason this ran out of time– he stalled the initiative effort by demanding that campaign organizers re-write the ballot language–forcing the citizens groups to spend time re-doing the initiative language that could have been spent gathering signatures–which may have been his intent.

But that wasn’t the only time opponents used stall tactics to prevent the ballot measure’s backers from having time to gather the necessary signatures.

They also had to fight off a lawsuit by TEA Party AG Tim Fox and a TEA Party legislative candidate named Matthew Monforton to block the popular citizen’s initiative to accept federal funding for health care for the working poor and veterans.

In a unanimous ruling, the justices of the MT Supreme Court ended up ruling that Fox’s and the TEA Partier’s attempt to invalidate the initiative fiscal statement was wrong. This fiscal statement was written by Fox himself and is supposed to explain how muh the measure could cost and save. Fox and the tea party tried to have it rewritten–an attempt to force the pro-Medicaid expansion signature gatherers to throw out thousands of signatures already gathered and start over at a later date, thereby severely restricting the amount of time they have to gather signatures. So the opponents failed, but in terms of time, money and resources used up to fight the legal challenge, the damage was severe.

It’s also worth noting that TEA Partier Monforton’s own attempt to block Medicaid expansion and nullify the entire Affordable Care Act had virtually no support. While the pro-expansion initiative got between 20-25,000 signatures, Monforton has never had enough to even report–which means so few signatures as to be embarrassing. I couldn’t find a Cowgirl tipster who had ever seen a Monforton signature gatherer.

Nor do I expect two anti-trapping ballot initiatives to qualify, nor the initiative to require a new appointment process for U.S. Senators, nor the initiative John Bohlinger proposed, nor the measure to require that half of our state legislators be women, nor the ban on medical cannabis, nor the measure to change how dentists are paid, nor the measure making it a right to access natural food and medicine, and not the several others out there that slip my mind right now either.

Most importantly however I think worth reading the statement from Montana’s leading field organizer and veteran human rights advocate Kim Abbott, who was the President of the Healthy Montana Initiative. If anyone could have qualified a citizens initiative ballot measure in this climate, it would have been Abbott. Nobody else even came close. (Charter’s paid signature gatherers bankrolled by corporate money hardly count, and it would not surprise me if Abbott bests them too.) Here’s Abbott:

“We are disappointed that the clock ran out on this effort, but we know that Montanans overwhelmingly support expanding Medicaid for 70,000 Montanans. Over 300 volunteers worked tirelessly over the past eight weeks. Because of their work, the movement to expand Medicaid grew by over 3,000 voters each and every week this spring. We are over 25,000 people stronger than we were when we started, and make no mistake, the momentum for this will continue to grow until Medicaid is expanded. There is too much at stake for Montanans, our hospitals and clinics, and our state to slow down now.

When we started this campaign in late March, we acknowledged that it was an uphill battle. We were forced to start over on the 30th day of our 30 day initiative review process. We faced obstructionism in the form of a legal challenge at the Supreme Court that threw our campaign in to legal uncertainly. We recognized that our grassroots team would be up against enormous, dark, outside money in November.

Even with all of these obstacles, we knew that it was truly a try or do nothing situation. We knew we would have to run a unique, grassroots campaign in order to compete. We knew doing nothing was not an option because 70,000 lives and the stability of hospitals and clinics depended on us. So we tried. Over 300 volunteers across the state – from Rexford to Red Lodge – donated their time to this effort. In eight weeks, our volunteers collected over 25,000 signatures. Unfortunately, the delays were simply too much. The June 20th deadline is the one barrier that we cannot work around. Our effort doesn’t get more time because we faced delays. Those are the rules and our campaign plays by them.

We are saddened that the citizens of Montana will not be able to vote in November on this critical issue. We want to be clear that our work will not end until 70,000 of our friends and neighbors have the health care they need and deserve. Montana cannot afford to stop until we get this done.”

Additional Information on I-170:

The Healthy Montana Initiative would have expanded Montana’s existing Medicaid program and provide health care to 70,000 low-income Montanans including veterans and their families, home health care workers, working parents, and other uninsured people. According to the Montana Budget and Policy Center, the Healthy Montana Initiative would have created 12,000 new jobs and give the state’s economy a $5.4 billion boost by accepting federal funds. Each day Montana does not expand Medicaid, our state turns away $1.84 million in federal funds.

To qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot, signatures of five percent of the total number of qualified voters in the state (based on the number of votes cast for the office of governor in the last general election), including five percent of the voters in each of 34 legislative house districts must be obtained (a total of 24,175 signatures).

Supporting organizations include: AARP Montana, Blue Mountain Clinic Family Practice, Child Care Resources, MEA-MFT, Montana Budget and Policy Center, Montana Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence, MHA – An Association of Montana Health Care Providers, Montana Human Rights Network, Montana Nurses Association, Montana Organizing Project, Montana Primary Care Association, Montana State AFL-CIO, Montana Women Vote, Rural Dynamics, Inc., Planned Parenthood Advocates of Montana, SEIU Healthcare 775NW, and Western Native Voice.

Our thanks are due to them all. The upshot here is that the pro-expansion movement now has a large base of informed, motivated and active volunteers that will be able to apply considerable and awe-inspiring pressure on the 2015 legislature to do the right thing. This power and pressure will only continue to grow.

For more information on the Healthy Montana Initiative, go to or email


16 Comments on "Analysis: Clock Runs Out for Healthy Montana Initiative"

  1. If the governor wanted this on the ballot, it would be on the ballot. And VBM has nothing to do with it, to get enough signatures beyond the magic number to assure validation, a campaign has to have collected the vast majority of signatures before primary election day. This was true before VBM, when getting 20% of signatures on primary day was seen as the mark of a top-notch operation.

    There should have been plenty of time for an initiative supposedly backed by the governor to get signatures. The initiative was first launched last June.

    But remember, the initiative was never a viable mechanism for change (the voters can’t appropriate money), the whole point of the initiative was to provide leverage for a Special Session.

    So instead of collecting signatures last summer, organizers rallied for a Special Session.

    It was only after Bullock chickened out on calling a Special Session that anyone got serious about collecting signatures. A initiative wasn’t filed until Nov 21 (a whopping 149 days after campaign was launched). Then withdrawn and resubmitted on Dec 13 (that was the version Fox blocked).

    If the Governor had wanted this on the ballot, it would be on the ballot. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Bullock is too incompetent a sitting Governor to get something on the ballot.

    • “It’s ridiculous to think that Bullock is too incompetent…” Really?! Put down the bong and your conspiracy theories would evaporate somewhat.

  2. The governor can’t tell people not to vote by mail ….I don’t understand how you can say the initiative was never viable- the first Medicaid explansion for children in 2008 passed with 70 percent of the vote, and then was funded by the legislature- which had one house controlled by democrats.

    Plus no democratic governor in his or her right mind would propose a special session when both houses are controlled by tea party republicans. That situation just ain’t tenable- a democratic gov won’t be able to get the votes- the tea baggers will use the session as a free for all to attack expansion and Obamacare and it’s game over. A special session is a bad idea – as is obvious.

  3. I’m one of those who signed the petition twice — once for the version Fox killed and once for the final version.

    I’m very disappointed.

  4. Bob could have be right on one point – after all Schweitzer was able to get the lobbying ban by former legislators /ethics in government initiate qualified and passed in 2006. He had the Democratic Party hire organizers and required all MDP field staff to get the signature to get this on the ballot and raised the money for the democrats to get it done–of course that was 8 years ago and more people vote by mail now. Plus there were more progressive people voting because the tester Morrison primary was hotly contested and Walsh and Lewis havn’t as of yet generated much progressive enthusiasm — hoping that will change but we will see, the point is this isn’t 2006.

  5. Voting by mail is not necessarily fatal to initiatives. Using Democratic walking lists, it should be possible to collect the requisite signatures by targeted door-to-door in addition to circulating petitions in high foot traffic areas. I’m inclined to think I-170’s organizers under-estimated the impact of VBM — many of the organizers think VBM is a good idea; I don’t — and failed to adjust their tactics, but I’m not dismissing Brigham’s thesis.

    • Voting by mail is certainly not fatal to ballot initiatives, but the landscape is definitely changing. The days of collecting the traditional percentage of signatures on primary day are long gone-especially with few D candidates this year to prop up voter turnout. Your idea of door-to-door signature gathering is laughable at best and shows your ignorance regarding campaign organizing and signature gathering, in general. In a decent (not even good) location with good foot traffic, a volunteer signature gatherer should get a minimum of 12 signatures an hour. In a very good area, a paid staffer can get over 40 an hour. How many do you think you could get door-to-door in a heavily progressive neighborhood, per hour? It’s not even close and it is very inefficient, unless you want to waste the effort of a volunteer (which I-170 was clearly made up of) who has committed their time, passion, and energy to a worthy cause. I-170 did not succeed because it ran out of time, not because it wasn’t a good idea, and not because of the people involved in gathering and organizing. With another week or two, much less the 30+ days stolen by our pawn of an AG, it seems like it would have passed easily. Republicans signed it all over the state, in the reddest of counties. They saw that they were looking out for their neighbors, family, and friends. Time is all that was needed, not “circulating petitions” or inefficient door-to-door work.

      • Your method worked really well this year, didn’t it?

        More to the point, getting an initiative on the ballot requires meeting a threshold of not just five percent statewide, but also in 34 legislative districts. Going door-to-door targets both districts and known voters, and should result in a signature invalidation rate of less than the 30 percent I-170 reportedly suffered.

        The effort failed not because the clock ran out, but because the backers of the initiative got started far too late and then couldn’t muster the resources necessary to collect enough signatures in the time they knew was available.

        Stop blaming the clock, Tim Fox, and others. You’ll find one person who just didn’t have what it took to get the job done by looking in a mirror.

        • So let’s just say that Tim Fox doesn’t intervene whatsoever, and I-170 has 85 days to gather signatures . Look at the numbers and tell me if it gets on the ballot.

          • Suppose I-170 had been submitted on 13 July 2013, like I-168 (which also didn’t make the ballot), and on 7 October 2013 approved for signature gathering? That would have left eight months plus, 240 days plus, to gather signatures. Why didn’t the healthy initiative operation get going much sooner? Tim Fox wasn’t helpful, but no one expected him to be helpful.

  6. All those who signed need to ‘freakin’ VOTE for the folks who WILL fund helping those in need, and the real DEATH PANEL is the GOP legislature who said NO NO NO to medicaid expansion……….

  7. The special session idea is ridiculous – no one in their right mind would think its a good idea to have a special session vote on something that isn’t going to pass. Idiotic.

    • A special session makes sense only if a deal that will hold together is cut before the session is called. There’s a possibility, slim but real, that having I-170 on the ballot would have provided the leverage to cut that deal. Now we’ll never know whether that might have happened.

      And we’ll also never know whether passing I-170 would have provided the leverage necessary to pass expand Medicaid legislation in the 2015 legislative session. This is a serious setback, demoralizing for I-170’s supporters and organizers, and, frankly, life-threatening for some of the 70,000 low income Montanans who will be denied the health coverage that a decent society would provide.

      My thanks to everyone who gave this a try. Even though it didn’t work out as planned, it was worth doing.

  8. So what’s the governor’s strategy for winning the votes for this in the 2015 legislature?

    I think we know a couple things we didn’t a month or two ago. One, we’re not going to have a Republican agenda foisted upon us early. Two, the people will not reject this in November. Three, the state will lose about $330 million between now and January that it could’ve had. And finally, the fact that this isn’t on the ballot will free up a lot more resources that the Democrats can direct toward those two national races.

    But none of that matters if you can’t convince enough Republicans to come over and vote for this next year.

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