Early elimination 

A ballot fan laments the premature end to initiative season

Every four years or so, we put aside our differences and come together for one of the most spectacular contests of human potential in the world. The community we find during this time—our passions inflamed by competition, our rivalries tempered by camaraderie—suggests the outlines of a better society, even our better selves. Truly, now is an inspiring time. I refer, of course, to ballot initiative season.

Like many, many readers of independent newsweeklies, I awaited this ballot initiative season with bated breath—also a baited hook to lure canvassers sent by my internet service provider away from the house in the mornings, but more on that later. The point is that after all that waiting and baiting, my two favorite ballot initiatives got withdrawn, and ballot initiative season was over before it began.

These are hard days for balloting fans. I should know because I’m the biggest ballot fan of them all. I can’t get enough of voting on things. I carry strips of paper in my pockets. I was terribly disappointed when I got to the ballet. But nothing could disappoint me more than the premature end to this year’s ballot initiative season and the seasonal allergies that accompany it, commonly known as ballot fever.

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We had a real David and Goliath narrative going. The Healthy Montana initiative, a proposal to accept federal funding for expanded Medicaid coverage, fell short of the 25,000 verified signatures it needed and withdrew the day before deadline. Meanwhile, Charter Communications—the David in this story, gentle lamb of God—stopped gathering signatures for an initiative to lower its own property tax bill. They settled with the state.

It was frustrating when these two contenders dropped out of ballot initiative season because it left so many questions unresolved. For example: the political Goliath that is Montanans within 38 percent of the poverty line has been knocked to earth, but for how long?

Next time, we might not have Attorney General Tim Fox—the other David in this David and Goliath and David story. Problems writing their measure kept the Healthy Montana Initiative from submitting a reviewable proposal until December, and that cost them a lot of signatures. But it was Fox’s delays and challenges that ate up crucial weeks during the balloting preseason.

The Healthy Montana Initiative was withdrawn and resubmitted to the Secretary of State three times. The second time, the Attorney General rejected it for appropriating money without legislative approval. Canvassing finally began in February. Two months later, Fox asked the Montana Supreme Court to order a new fiscal note for the initiative—one that would have invalidated all signatures gathered up to that point.

The Supreme Court threw out Fox’s challenge, but he did the Lord’s work. If I may mix my sports and biblical metaphors, he kept drilling the Healthy Montana Initiative with rocks until it dropped just before the end zone. Goliath played for the wrong team and/or god, and Fox brought him down.

Meanwhile, Charter Communications diligently conducted its own act of democracy. You might know Charter as the company that bought Optimum, the company that bought Bresnan, the company that made you complete voice menu instructions on restarting your router before you could schedule a service appointment. They still do that, but now Charter gets the profits.

As of last Thursday, Charter was disputing $34 million in property taxes with the state of Montana. Ballot Initiative 172 would have reversed a January decision by the Montana Supreme Court and reclassified Charter Communications as a cable company, not a telecommunications company. In addition to lowering your cable bill, as the text of the initiative promised, it would have cost the state $1.1 million a year and paid Charter $10 million from the general fund.

None of that is going to happen, because Charter settled with the state of Montana just before the deadline to get its initiative on the ballot. And once again, one of the most exciting storylines of ballot initiative season dissolved into unanswered questions.

Blanketed with A) volunteers collecting signatures on behalf of health insurance for poor people and B) paid weirdos mumbling about the cable bill, would Montanans really choose team A? Would the same AG who complained that Healthy Montana Initiative hid the true cost of free money from the feds allow Charter’s end run around the judiciary? And when the machinery of democracy geared up, would we really vote against cheap help for the poor and in favor of an expensive win for the cable company?

These were the questions this ballot initiative season promised to answer, and then the whole thing went kaput. I’ve never seen such a letdown in my life. It’s as if David settled with Goliath, and then 7 percent of the people watching died of preventable illnesses.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, consumer culture and weirdos at combatblog.net.

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