History of Initiative & Referendum in Montana

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Montana's Populist governor Robert B. Smith, elected in 1896, and his successor, Joseph K. Toole, elected in 1900, both called for initiative and referendum (I&R). Neither made much headway, however, until December 1903, when the reformer F. Augustus Heinze organized an "Anti-Trust Democratic Party" and an "Ant-Trust Republican Party." These groups, combining their efforts with those of the very vocal "seven or eight men" from the state's Direct Legislation League, were able to push an I&R amendment through the legislature. The bill did not include the right to pass state constitutional amendments by initiative.

The 1906 vote

The I&R amendment won by a six to one margin on the 1906 ballot, with 36,374 votes in favor and 6,616 votes against. It received a majority of the vote in every single county. Montanans added the right of constitutional initiative to their constitution at the 1972 state constitutional convention, 66 years later.

Montanans first used I&R in 1912, when voters approved four out of four initiatives on the ballot. One required primary elections to nominate state and local candidates; the second established a presidential preference primary; the third called for direct election of U.S. senators; and the fourth limited candidates' campaign expenditures.

Amalgamated Copper

The reformers' goal for the 1912 election, which was to "Put the Amalgamated Copper Company out of Montana politics," proved to be an elusive one. The legislature and the governors of the World War I era continued to do the company's bidding. Even after the election of Joseph M. Dixon as governor in 1920, which was a victory for the reformers, Amalgamated continued to dominate the legislature. Near the end of his term, Dixon and the reformers turned to the initiative process.

Dixon selected as his key issue the under-taxing of Amalgamated: in 1922 the production of Montana's metal mines was $20 million, but the state got less than seven-hundredths of one percent of that in taxes. To remedy the situation, Dixon drew up Initiative 28, which proposed no taxes on mines with annual production of $100,000 or less, but taxed larger mines at up to one percent of the value of their production. The initiative qualified for the ballot in 1924, the same year Dixon was up for re-election.

During that campaign, observed K. Ross Toole in his history of Montana, "The people heard little from Dixon himself because he had no medium for expression. The press was controlled [by Amalgamated], and there were no radios." Amalgamated attacked Dixon's policies and Dixon himself, and he lost the election by 15,000 votes. But in their attacks on Dixon they overlooked Initiative 28, and it passed.

A year later, under the new tax, which Amalgamated called “confiscatory and ruinous,” the company’s net profit for 1925 was nearly three times its net for 1924, and the state of Montana received $300,000. This was 22 times as much as the $13,559 the state took in from its metal mines tax prior to the initiative. Toole considered Initiative 28 the most significant reform won by Montana's Progressive movement.

1920 property tax

In 1920, voters approved a 1.5 million property tax for maintenance of the state university, and, on the same ballot, passed an initiative issuing $5 million in bonds to fund school construction. In 1926, they passed a three-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax to fund road construction, and they approved more highway funding in a 1938 initiative vote.

Numerous other important initiatives have passed in the last decade – term limits and tax reform have been the most controversial with state legislators. These two reforms have led state lawmakers to propose numerous new regulations and restrictions on the initiative process. Additionally, a state Montana Supreme Court decision strictly enforcing the state’s single amendment provision for initiative amendments has led to a drastic decrease in the number of initiatives appearing on the state’s ballot and has, in effect, shut down the state’s constitutional initiative process.

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This article is significantly based on an article[1] published by the Initiative & Referendum Institute, and is used with their permission. Their article, in turn, relies on research in David Schmidt's book, Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution.[2]


  1. History of Montana's initiative
  2. Citizen Lawmakers: The Ballot Initiative Revolution Temple University Press, 352 pp., ISBN-10: 0877229031, October 1991