Montana State Capitol in Helena
Montana State Capitol in Helena (Photo: Jennifer Pack, reproduced under a Creative Commons license)

Bipar­ti­san momen­tum for even year elec­tions across the Unit­ed States is grow­ing, judg­ing by an effort under­way in Mon­tana by Repub­li­can leg­is­la­tors to move city and munic­i­pal elec­tions to high­er turnout pres­i­den­tial and midterm years.

Sen­a­tor Chris Friedel, R‑Billings, recent­ly won his col­leagues’ sup­port for a bill that would move elec­tions for city and town offi­cials (may­ors, coun­cilmem­bers, munic­i­pal judges) from odd to even-num­bered years.

The leg­is­la­tion, Sen­ate Bill 420, passed out of the Mon­tana State Sen­ate at the begin­ning of this month (March 2nd) on a 30–20 vote.

It’s now under con­sid­er­a­tion in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and had a hear­ing in the House Local Gov­ern­ment Com­mit­tee today. It’s a fair­ly sim­ple bill, con­sist­ing of just four sec­tions. Sec­tion (2), shown below, is the one that amends the exist­ing elec­tion laws to change the tim­ing by delet­ing just a few words:

Sec­tion 2. Sec­tion 13–1‑104, MCA, is amend­ed to read:

13–1‑104. Times for hold­ing gen­er­al elec­tions. (1) A gen­er­al elec­tion must be held through­out the state on the first Tues­day after the first Mon­day in November.

(2) In every even-num­bered year, the fol­low­ing elec­tions must be held on gen­er­al elec­tion day:

(a) an elec­tion on any bal­lot issue sub­mit­ted to elec­tors pur­suant to Arti­cle III, sec­tion 6, unless the leg­is­la­ture orders a spe­cial elec­tion, or Arti­cle XIV, sec­tion 8, of the Mon­tana constitution;

(b) an elec­tion of fed­er­al offi­cers, mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture, state offi­cers, mul­ti­coun­ty dis­trict offi­cers elect­ed at a statewide elec­tion, dis­trict court judges, and coun­ty offi­cers, and munic­i­pal offi­cers; and

(c) any oth­er elec­tion required by law to be held on gen­er­al elec­tion day in an even-num­bered year.

(3) In every odd-num­bered year, the fol­low­ing elec­tions must be held on the same day as the gen­er­al election:

(a) an elec­tion of offi­cers for munic­i­pal­i­ties required by law to hold the elec­tion; and

(b) any oth­er elec­tion required by law to must be held on gen­er­al elec­tion day in an odd-num­bered year.”

Sec­tion 3, shown below, con­cerns imple­men­ta­tion. There is more than one way to tran­si­tion a local juris­dic­tion from odd to even-num­bered years. Friedel has cho­sen the auto­mat­ic term exten­sions approach, tack­ing one year on to the end of exist­ing terms for local office­hold­ers, as can be seen below:

NEW SECTION. Sec­tion 3. Tran­si­tion. (1) (a) A munic­i­pal offi­cer whose term ends in Jan­u­ary 2024 shall be appoint­ed to the office for an addi­tion­al 1‑year term end­ing in Jan­u­ary 2025.

(b) A munic­i­pal offi­cer appoint­ed as pro­vid­ed in sub­sec­tion (1)(a) may run for reelec­tion in 2024 if the offi­cer is not oth­er­wise restrict­ed from run­ning for reelection.

(2) (a) A munic­i­pal offi­cer whose term ends in Jan­u­ary 2026 shall be appoint­ed to the office for an addi­tion­al 1‑year term end­ing in Jan­u­ary 2027.

(b) A munic­i­pal offi­cer appoint­ed as pro­vid­ed in sub­sec­tion (2)(a) may run for reelec­tion in 2026 if the offi­cer is not oth­er­wise restrict­ed from run­ning for reelection.

(3) The addi­tion­al 1‑year term pro­vid­ed in sub­sec­tions (1)(a) and (2)(a) may not be count­ed as a term of office when cal­cu­lat­ing whether the munic­i­pal offi­cer has reached a term limit.

Friedel is back­ing an amend­ment to his bill to pro­vide more time for the leg­is­la­tion to go into effect. As writ­ten, it would go into effect right after being signed.

It is real­ly heart­en­ing to see this leg­is­la­tion not only being dis­cussed, but act­ed upon in Mon­tana. Vot­ers across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum love even year elec­tions, and when­ev­er peo­ple get the chance to vote on a mea­sure to sim­pli­fy elec­tion tim­ing, they vote yes. In 2022, there were thir­teen such mea­sures on the bal­lot across the coun­try, includ­ing NPI’s King Coun­ty Char­ter Amend­ment 1 here in Wash­ing­ton State. All of them passed, most by over­whelm­ing margins.

Our char­ter amend­ment, spon­sored by Coun­cilmem­ber Clau­dia Bal­duc­ci and cospon­sored by Coun­cilmem­ber Gir­may Zahi­lay, received 69%+ of the vote.

Fol­low­ing the pas­sage of our char­ter amend­ment, NPI worked with Sen­a­tor Javier Valdez to devel­op state-lev­el leg­is­la­tion that is sim­i­lar in many respects to Sen­a­tor Friedel’s Sen­ate Bill 420, though it would be opt-in rather than mandatory.

NPI’s Sen­ate Bill 5723 would give cities and towns the free­dom to choose their elec­tion tim­ing, elim­i­nat­ing a require­ment dat­ing back to the 1960s that they go in odd-num­bered years. Munic­i­pal judge elec­tions would stay in whichev­er cycles they are cur­rent­ly in (some cities, like Seat­tle, already elect judges in even years); only leg­isla­tive and exec­u­tive posi­tions would be eli­gi­ble for switching.

Our bill also uti­lizes a dif­fer­ent imple­men­ta­tion approach: bridge terms.

With that approach, terms for posi­tions elect­ed in odd num­bered years that need to tran­si­tion to even years end at their usu­al times but are then fol­lowed by spe­cial terms that are one year short­er than they oth­er­wise would be.

There­after, term lengths revert back to a nor­mal duration.

SB 5723 is cur­rent­ly in hiber­na­tion in the Sen­ate Rules Com­mit­tee. It will have an oppor­tu­ni­ty for fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion by the Sen­ate in the 2024 short session.

Friedel’s Sen­ate Bill 420 has got­ten some of the very same push­back that our King Coun­ty Char­ter Amend­ment 1 got last year, with bill oppo­nents sug­gest­ing that local issues would end up get­ting buried if local posi­tions are elect­ed at the same time that state and fed­er­al ones are. Friedel is thank­ful­ly unfazed:

Friedel told MTN he didn’t think city issues would get over­shad­owed by the oth­er votes held at the same time. He argued a switch to even-year elec­tions would improve turnout for munic­i­pal votes.

It’s tru­ly refresh­ing to see a Repub­li­can elect­ed offi­cial who gets it. Mov­ing local elec­tions to even-num­bered years results in high­er, more diverse turnout for those posi­tions. The data is crys­tal clear on that. And hold­ing local elec­tions in midterm and pres­i­den­tial years does­n’t squelch dis­cus­sions of local issues. In fact, it can ele­vate them, because the media devotes more resources to polit­i­cal cov­er­age in even years and pub­lic aware­ness of elec­tions is much greater.

If the House acts on SB 420 and Gov­er­nor Greg Gian­forte (R) signs it, Mon­tana cities and towns could soon be on the path to elect­ing their may­ors, coun­cilmem­bers, and munic­i­pal judge in high turnout even years. That would be a great boost for this impor­tant bipar­ti­san cause in the greater Pacif­ic Northwest.

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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